Total Wine & More , part of the wave of sweeping changes in the new era of private liquor sales in Washington state. The Bellevue store swung open its doors to reveal aisles upon aisles of vodka, gin, tequila, cognac and other distilled liquors.
I arrived at their pre-opening party Wednesday evening, anticipating seeing colleagues and acquaintances from the wine, beer and spirits industry. I found some familiar faces, mainly producers and distributors angling for shelf placements.
And therein lies one of my concerns of the new mega booze store in Washington: the lack of local management personnel at Total Wine & More.
The 30,000-square-foot store boasts a selection of 8,000 wines, 3,000 spirits and 2,500 beers. Washington is well represented with 1,450 wines, 55 spirits and 540 beers. The beer selection includes Total Wine’s “Brewery District,” a beer tasting bar with 12 taps and offering growlers of Washington craft brews for sale.
I question, however, whether the new Total Wine & More has the personnel to guide consumers through that many local options.
All other qualifications being equal, local wine, beer and liquor salespeople have an inherent advantage over professionals with experience elsewhere. By most measures the Total Wine & More management team at the new Bellevue store is plenty experienced and qualified. Surprising, however, is their lack of experience in Washington.
On the local management team, only assistant manager Patrick Golden has experience working in the local market. He was a manager at a state-run liquor store in Shoreline for five years.
The affable and customer service-centric Jerry Felinczak Jr., the new store’s manager, has been with the company for 13 years, most recently relocating from Florida. His father, Jerry Felinczak Sr., has been with the company for 20 years and works at a store in North Carolina.
Wine manager Andrea Starr, who has worked for Total Wine & More since 2007, opened all eight of the store locations in Arizona before moving to Washington to open the Bellevue store.
Assistant manager Aaron Brengle also transferred from Total Wine & More in Arizona to help open the Bellevue store. His enthusiasm for beer overflows like the suds in a foamy beer spilling out of a schooner.
Assistant manager Nick Fraijo has worked at Total Wine & More since 2005, transferring from Maryland to stores in Virginia, Arizona, Florida and now Bellevue.
Washington is the second-largest wine producing state in the union, behind California. The Washington craft brewing industry is not as large but has been just as successful. The distilled liquor industry is growing exponentially. Total Wine & More is renowned for its exhaustive training in customer service as well as product knowledge, perhaps mitigating some of the local lack of experience.
Mark Powell, executive vice president in charge of retail store operations for Total Wine & More, said two members of the Bellevue management staff have been in the state for the last six months training and acclimating to the local wine, beer and spirits industry.
“Part of our training is bringing our vendors to teach about wine,” Powell said, before struggling to give , the largest wine producer in the state, as a recent example of a vendor who trained his team.
Coincidentally, at Wednesday’s pre-opening party I ran into Kurt Krause, the former wine director at Larry’s Market Bellevue, which previously occupied the same space where the new Total Wine & More stands. Krause, now working at the specialty wine retailer McCarthy & Schiering on Queen Anne, has built a career on engaging and proactive customer service. Perhaps Krause’s positive energy will rub off on the current tenants at Wilburton Crossing.
Wine professionals like Krause have built relationships with suppliers as well as customers over the course of decades. There’s no shortcut or replacement for that.
One last note: extensive training did not teach much of the floor staff introductory customer service skills. Some staff stood away from customers, aloof with arms crossed. They looked more like store security than sales staff.
I appreciate the value of promoting ambitious employees within a company, as well as the value of the continuity longtime employees bring to opening a new store in a new market. I also believe in Total Wine & More’s commitment to training. However, the lack of local diversity raises eyebrows.