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Business Profile: Keeping it real

Joe’s Wine & Spirits is the kind of place where you can feel comfortable buying your favorite beverage—even if it’s a simple Bud Lite.

That’s because owner Joe Strawn’s slogan for the store is “Keep it real.” It’s also the key behind his success.

Strawn operates his store, which opened in 2004 at the Village of Cherry Hill, using what he calls old-fashioned business principles: knowing his customers, knowing his products and making sure he’s open when his customers need him. Strawn’s idea is to appeal to a wide range of consumers, from wine connoisseurs to people who just want a beer for the game on Sunday. That’s keeping it real.

Strawn shuns terms like “entrepreneur.” “I’m just a business owner,” says Strawn. He also resists the word “shop.” “Shops close at 6 p.m.,” he says. “I need to be here when my customers want to stop in and ask questions, and that’s after people get off work.”

While he’s on the job, Strawn does not give advice about which wine to buy based on upscale criteria. “You like what you like,” he says, preferring instead to get to know his customers and their tastes so he can suggest other wines or beverages they might also like.

Joe’s Wine & Spirits stocks about 600 different kinds of wines originating in places ranging from California to New Zealand, and he also stocks about 100 varieties of beer, more than 100 different liquors, and sodas and snacks.

If you want a wine you can’t find on the shelf, Strawn can probably get it for you. He does business with nine different distributors.

His efforts are paying off. Since opening the store three years ago, Strawn’s business has increased by roughly 20 percent each year. Initially, his marketing efforts included radio, television and door mailers, but today his favorite marketing tool is an e-mail list that lets him send his customers notices about new products in stock or an upcoming wine tasting. His e-mail updates now reach about 600 people, up from 200 a year ago.

As business owner, wine expert and head of marketing, Strawn puts in a lot of hours. With only four part-time employees and himself on the staff, Strawn keeps the store open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. four days a week, until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and until 9 p.m. on Sundays.

Getting started

Strawn jokingly says he has been working toward having his own business ever since he had a paper route at age 12.

A more direct path toward owning his own wine and spirits store opened up in 1993 when he was promoted to manager of the wine and spirits department in the old Nowell’s grocery store. Strawn wasn’t a wine drinker at the time, but he kept an open mind and learned as he went along, attending wine tastings and other events across the state. He remembers the first wine he really liked, a 1989 Marque’s de Caccres Crianza, a red tempranillo.

Strawn took to heart a tip the outgoing manager gave him when he turned over the liquors department at Nowell’s; he advised Strawn to treat the department as if it were his own business. As a result, Strawn built up a customer base, people who trusted him while he worked as the department manager.

After Nowell’s closed, Strawn moved to Patricia’s, but when he saw Cherry Hill going up, he liked the location and the look of the new development. He believed he had enough contacts and experience to take the lessons he had learned and put them into action for himself.

At his wife’s urging, and with guidance from the local Small Business Administration office, Strawn leased his store location and opened in March 2004.

Since then, business has increased steadily, and Strawn finds he enjoys making his own decisions and watching the store develop. Of course, he acknowledges the downsides as well. If a worker calls in sick or leaves suddenly, Strawn must pick up the slack himself. And then there was the night the burglar alarm went off at 3 a.m., he recalls with a chuckle. (False alarm!)

But for Strawn, owning his own business—not “shop”— is very rewarding. He continues to look for ways to make it more appealing to his customers, such as adding a wine chiller that can chill a wine off the shelf to the correct temperature in just a few minutes.

“If you believe in yourself,” says Strawn, and you know your customers and your product, “it should take off for you.”

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