Founded in 1948 by Harold Binstein in a storefront near the Chicago Cubs’ ballpark, Binny’s Beverage Depot has expanded to 28 locations with its newest in Champaign, Ill. This Illinois empire created by CEO Michael Binstein, son of the founder, exceeds the original location in store size, merchandise selection and design.

The younger Binstein remembers what retailing was like in those days. “The stores were very tiny,” he recalls. “It was in the most primitive stages of what is now the retail business. I think that’s how a lot of retailers operated. That’s how a lot of food and other consumer goods were sold.”

The original location is still on Clark but is occupied by what today would be considered a small, neighborhood liquor store, not even as large as the average convenience store. Binny’s Beverage Depots, on the other hand, are at least five times as large, with square footages measured in thousands rather than hundreds.

“My father unveiled the first self-service liquor store in the early 1950s and the first big-box superstore in the early 1990s,” Binstein remembers. “Between those milestones, there were a lot of other changes.” 

Best-looking Stores

Binny’s opened its first liquor superstore in Des Plaines, Ill., in 1993. Binstein joined the business in 1995 after the death of his father. Having worked as a newspaper reporter in Washington, D.C., he brought a fresh approach to the business.

Three Binny’s locations have been extensively remodeled recently, and remodeling usually follows the acquisition of a store or chain of stores. “We don’t want to be the best-looking liquor store – we want to have the best store,” Binstein declares. “So we compare ourselves to all retail, not just liquor and wine.”

Binny’s purchased Sam’s Wine and Spirits in 2007, an Armanetti’s liquor store in Willowbrook, Ill., in 2005 and Zimmerman’s downtown Chicago location in 1999. Armanetti’s is a buying group with independent owners, so individual stores or groups of stores can be purchased separately even though other stores in the area retain the Armanetti name.

Binny’s completely redesigned website has incorporated a new search engine. “It is much more an extension of Binny’s Beverage Depot,” Binstein explains. “It’s more customer-friendly and easier to shop, check out and learn while you’re on the site. It’s a customer resource. That’s merchandising in a digital age. A good number of people order online and pick it up at a store near them, so it offers shopping convenience.”

Leading Liquors

Binny’s Beverage Depot has annual sales of $275 million, making Binny’s the largest independent liquor dealer in the Midwest by dollar volume. Binstein names vodka as the highest-selling spirit category in his chain of stores, but the liquor category that is responsible for the most sales among beer, wine and spirits is wine.

“Wine continues to be a majority of our business,” he says. “Craft beer is surging … but wine is the majority.” Binny’s product selection is for every pocketbook, Binstein maintains – for example, its selection of red wine extends from blends for less than $10 to ones topping $200.

Other trends Binstein sees are the resurgence of brown goods like whiskeys, a plethora of new small boutique distillers and the growth of craft beer microbrewers locally and nationally. “We carry a $10 million inventory of specialty spirits,” Binstein reveals, noting that the company maintains a “whiskey hotline” staffed by three of its buyers. “You can call the whiskey hotline six days a week and get all your questions answered,” he says. “We handle special requests – if you want to talk about bourbon with somebody, there is somebody here with an encyclopedic knowledge. The whiskey hotline is really our signature in the industry.” The hotline – which is staffed from the company’s new 56,000-square-foot South Loop location – also is accessible online.

Employee Training

Binny’s does not rely on industry designations for employees like “sommelier” for wine experts or “Cicero” for beer mavens to establish staff expertise. “We have people who are well-schooled in the industry and have superior product knowledge,” Binstein maintains. These employees travel regularly and are able to source out the best products. “We have a very sophisticated training program,” he asserts. “We do a lot of the training in-house with our own staff. We also bring in outside experts, sometimes distributors.”

The company offers its employees bourbon, Scotch, wine, beer and cognac training, and sales training in general. Employees join the company from a number of industries. “Sometimes we recruit them, sometimes they recruit us,” Binstein concedes. “We have a full-time recruiting staff. We look for the best retailers – sometimes we find them in the liquor business, sometimes the restaurant business. We have a reservoir of talent that is widely regarded as the best in the business, not just locally, but in the United States.”

That talent is employed not only in educating staff members but also customers. “We have a big push on consumer education, so all of our events liquor-wise are geared to education,” he says. These in-store events feature employees and guest speakers.

At the company’s Lakeview location on the north side of Chicago, these events are held in the “catacombs,” a basement location that was elaborately decorated in a medieval motif by the Ivanhoe Restaurant and Theater that previously occupied the space. The exterior of the store still resembles a medieval castle. This store and others in the chain also carry a selection of items such as cheese, snacks and cigars that complement the company’s main product line.

In-store Warehousing

No central warehouse is used for distribution. “Illinois law does not allow offsite warehousing, nor does it allow the transfer of alcohol,” Binstein emphasizes. “The only warehousing we do is in the backroom of the store, which services that store itself and no other store.” The company’s most distant location from its home base of the Chicago area is in Champaign, Ill., which is about a two-hour drive from Chicago.

“It’s more complicated – it’s a little more cumbersome with delivery schedules, but part of the opening in Champaign was to offer the downstate market a lot of items that they couldn’t find anywhere else,” he notes. “Distributors and suppliers are happy to win distribution of items that have long been unavailable on the shelves of retailers in the downstate market.”

Binny’s is developing plans for further expansion. “We’re starting to look at different opportunities in the Midwest,” Binstein reveals. These could be in neighboring Wisconsin or Indiana, or further downstate near Champaign. “It’s just a matter of what the local population centers can support,” he concludes. “We have no intention of opening a second store in Champaign, but there are other downstate markets.”

How he determines locations is difficult to say. “It’s part art, part science,” Binstein concedes. Thus far, that hybrid, unique approach has worked well for the growing liquor chain.

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