The folks who used to run Sam’s Wines & Spirits—once the only place to get craft wine, beer and spirits in Chicago—have resurfaced as Evolution Wines & Spirits and are celebrating the grand opening of their new Lakeview store at 3530 N. Lincoln Ave. this weekend. Stop in for the opportunity to taste 40 different wines and partake in some customer giveaways.
The Lakeview spot joins Evolution locations in Bucktown and Northbrook, developed with the intent of providing a more localized experience, each store tailored to its surrounding neighborhood. Roscoe View Journal caught up with Brian Rosen, former CEO at Sam’s and now team leader at Evolution, to talk about his newest venture.
RVJ: This is Evolution’s third location. How many stores do you plan to open and what drew you to Lakeview?
Rosen: The business plan calls for 10 stores by 2015. We pick our locations by a simple process: We look for places that are in wine deserts. These places have a lot of traffic congestion and people, which makes getting to a Costco on the weekend difficult. We open stores that are 5,000 to 7,000 square feet and are conveniently located. Instead of driving an hour to get to a Costco, we are conveniently located so it’s easy for people to get to.
I coined the phrase wine desert from the term food desert. These are areas where wine options might be limited to a single rack of wine in the back of a convenience store. There are no specialty wine retailers. People want to enjoy craft beer and wine locally. The model of Evolution is that it is your wine store. We tailor to the neighborhood. Lakeview is more of a wine crowd, whereas our Bucktown location is more for younger people looking to have a drink before going out for the night. It’s a different scene, and we tailor ourselves to it.
RVJ: How do you plan to distinguish yourself from competitors?
Rosen: We provide a locally focused selection. When I was at Sam’s, what was unique was that we knew our customers by name, but we were the largest wine retailer in the country. We pulled from five states. The niche now is to have a sommelier on site. At Evolution, we have specialists and veterans in the business. They have passion and knowledge. The employees are the differentiator.
RVJ: How has the business changed since you first started at Sam’s?
Rosen: We sold Sam’s at the height of the wine market. Now, everyone is selling wine: Whole Foods, CVS, even Starbucks is now starting to sell wine. Employee differentiation is what has changed. It’s reconnecting with the consumer. That is the goal with Evolution. We want to reconnect with the customer. When you come to Evolution, there is a shop owner, and people appreciate that. We talk to customers, and not at them. There will also be big-box stores, but people are starting to shop local and connecting with their retailers who know their customers and their kids. It’s about knowing what people want. It’s like the old butcher shops when people would call and place an order to pick up later. It’s the same reconnection, but instead of selling meat, we’re selling wine.
RVJ: With so many craft beers and craft spirits, is there a danger of overwhelming the customer or is variety the name of the game?
Rosen: Craft beer and craft spirits show how retail is really changing. People have an identity with what they are buying. With something like a craft spirit like Koval, it says something about who you are. It says you understand how it is made. It says you are unique. We have a lot of artisanal offerings, but we carry it all.
RVJ: What’s your personal beverage of choice?
Rosen: What or how much? I’m kidding. I’m a hand-crafted guy. I’ve been enjoying an agave tequila distilled in Plainfield called Midnight Caye. We can’t keep it in stock. Plainfield used to be known for a tornado, and now it’s getting known for tequila.