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Photo by Jeff Smith

Photo by Jeff Smith

A lot has changed since 1978.

When Plaza Liquors and Fine Wines opened, the number of American breweries was at its post-Prohibition low and homebrewing was still illegal. Napa Valley, fresh off the surprise victory of California wines over their French counterparts at the 1976 Judgment of Paris, was just beginning to establish its reputation.

Now, Plaza Liquors carries an inventory of more than 700 beers and a carefully chosen selection of wines that goes well beyond France and Napa, including another region on the rise: Baja Arizona.

The store is both compact and overwhelming, the bottle-lined shelves carefully organized by variety and style, with large beer coolers dominating one wall. Options abound no matter what your preference is, and the staff is ready with recommendations. It’s in an unassuming strip mall, sure, but Plaza Liquors has a “world-class” 98 rating from Beer Advocate.

Through years of massive growth in beer and wine producers, shifting consumer tastes, and the arrival of big-box liquor stores, Plaza has kept its focus on making the customer happy.

“Really for the past 30 years, we’ve done nothing but have increases in our business, with the exception of the latest recession,” says the owner, Mark Thomson. “Customer service has always been the bottom line here, and I’ve never let go of that theory.”

Even as traditional grocery stores, drug stores, discount outlets like Costco, specialty markets like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, and large beer, wine and liquor retailers like BevMo! and Total Wine & More have increased their fight for a share of the $400 billion beverage industry (as estimated by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States), Plaza has thrived, mostly by doing things that others aren’t.

“A lot of people have been around for a long time selling liquor at discount rates. I’ve always had to deal with chains and I’ve had to devise different ways of outsmarting them,” Thomson says.

Today, Plaza draws people with a hugely popular mix-a-six bottled beer business and weekly beer and wine tastings that educate customers as well as provide the store with fresh data on what its customers like best. Add in an expert sales staff and a culture of quality and it’s no surprise that Plaza is a perennial winner of Tucson Weekly’s Best of Tucson awards.

“With box stores, I think a lot of people don’t like having to shop around such a big store. We have a tremendous selection, but within an area that’s easy to shop and with people to help,” Thomson says.

The store opened on Jan. 15, 1978, in Campbell Plaza, next to what was then an AJ Bayless, which didn’t have a liquor license. A much smaller store, Plaza depended on grocery shoppers from next door as it built up a clientele. Seven years later, Plaza moved to its current location at 2642 N. Campbell Ave., where having its own parking lot allowed the store to be more independent and start focusing on a more varied selection.

“The first thing I got on was the wine. We were a liquor store at first, but I wanted to develop our wine business, so from the very beginning that became my specialty,” Thomson says. “I went to wine country and visited wineries and read all I could and fortunately, we got to be one of the go-to places for wine.”

Thomson added a tasting license in 1980, but just this summer upgraded the store to include a tasting bar.

“I’ve always used it, for informal tastings and formal tastings, but recently we’ve decided to take it more seriously,” he says. “Our focus on tastings is comparative tastings. With wine, we’ll take five or six bottles of, say, a Cabernet Sauvignon in a certain price range and taste them, with our customers as judges. That really gives us an idea of what the customers like. It works out really well. The customers, as tasters, have a lot more energy for that type of tasting. They feel they’re contributing, so they get really into it.”

The store holds tastings every week—and line up the tastings with 10 percent discount days: Wednesdays for wine and Thursdays for beer.

The craft beer explosion beginning about 15 years ago gave Plaza another opportunity to distinguish itself.

“I wanted to swing our attention over to beer and the best way to do that was to increase our selection. We built up inventory to more than 700 beers. That’s something we were on the forefront of from the beginning of the craft-beer explosion, so we caught that wave just right,” Thomson says.

But it wasn’t just selection that brought in the craft-beer crowd.

“One thing that’s made a huge difference is we went to singling about 10 years ago, mix-a-six. That not only worked, it became the mainstay of our business. You don’t get beer bored and we don’t charge any extra,” he says. “You could come in at any time of day and somebody is mixing a six. People in general love that opportunity. It’s variety, it’s adventure, it’s exploration, and it gives people the opportunity to do their own little beer tastings, so they can learn and appreciate the styles more.”

Beer specialist Gabriel Romero, who’s been at Plaza for about a year and a half, says the mix-a-six rewards adventurous and curious customers. He should know.

“I was a customer here for years. When I turned 21 in the late-’90s, the craft-beer trend hit. I lived up the street and I just fell in love with it,” he says. “Plaza was always the place that had things first. Some of the bigger stores are starting to catch up a bit, but we’re always rotating the stock and bringing in new things. We have the old standards, but we try to get a selection that’s different.”

With so many new breweries—the number of U.S. craft breweries has doubled in the last eight years—and a wide range of customer tastes, Plaza works to keep its selection eclectic.

“Every week there’s something new we can bring in,” Romero says. “We bring in things from everywhere. Our selection holds up to the big stores for sure, and we know what we’re talking about here.”

That expertise is what matters, Thomson says, keeping Plaza a step ahead even as others have gone to the mix-a-six model.

“With the chains, even though some of them have gone to that, most stores don’t because it’s too labor intensive. So much human labor goes into stocking 650 cold beers every day,” he says.

And when those employees on the floor stocking coolers and wine racks are the same ones ordering, Plaza has a big advantage over a long corporate decision-making chain. One example Thomson cites is Iron John’s Brewing Company, the local small-batch brewery that began this year.

“We are all about Iron John. He’s always happy to run over the latest batch. That’s almost our No. 1 brewery now. Big stores don’t stock that,” he says.

“We’ve always focused on local wine and beer. Those are our neighbors and they need our support as much as we need their support. But we don’t just focus on Tucson. We love Flagstaff beers. We love Phoenix beers.”

One thing Plaza doesn’t stock is the corporate wineries you can find in the big-box stores.

“Something that’s really attracted our wine buyers, just like our craft beer people, is we deal almost exclusively in genuinely family-owned wineries,” Thomson says. “I take pains to point that out to customers. If they’re in here supporting us, they’re the type of person who would want to support the family-owned wineries too.”

Wine specialist Allen Rodriguez worked at Plaza for 13 years, then left to work on the wholesale side for 11 years, and recently returned, bringing his decades of knowledge.

“I’ve been in and out of so many retail stores over the years, and I’ve told Mark that his customer service standards are better than I’ve seen almost anyplace else,” he says. “That’s where the knowledge part comes in. If we’re out of a certain wine, I can show a customer four or five others.”

Plaza did struggle for a few years after the 2008 economic crisis, but sales now are over pre-recession levels, despite the increased competition from the likes of BevMo! and Total Wine. Mostly, Thomson credits his “long list of good employees.”

“I’ve been lucky. My employees have taken care of me and been really good to the customers as well,” Thomson says. “We’ve staked our business on the belief that if you’re a good store and you treat people well, they’ll come back and they’ll tell other people.” ✜

Published Jan. 1, 2015 in Edible Baja Arizona. 

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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