Though its Chicago stores have sleek and modern interiors, Garfield’s Beverage Warehouse in the Chicagoland area has been around since 1951. Originally founded by Norman Garfield as Cicero Cut-Rate Liquors in Cicero, Illinois, the business expanded and operated under the brand Cardinal Wine and Liquors for nearly three decades before settling on the family name in 2015. The eight-store chain is now owned by Norman’s son, Bruce, who runs the company alongside his son, David, and COO Adam Silverstein.
“My father got a loan from two uncles for $2,000 each,” Bruce recalls. “He had $500 and he had a partner who had $500, and they started the business.”
That’s a far cry from today: Annual revenue at Garfield’s was more than $30 million in 2021, and further expansion is in the works. Now 70, Bruce started working full-time at his father’s store after graduating college in 1974. He’d done some stocking and cleaning around the shop when he was 13 years old, but he decided to officially join the family business upon graduating from Northeastern Illinois University.
“I went to college to be a psychologist, and then I decided that wasn’t what I wanted, although it helped in the business,” Bruce says. “I love dealing with the customers. It was just natural [for me]. I enjoyed it all the time. I still enjoy it.” Before becoming a fixture at the family business, Bruce also worked in the distribution tier at wholesaler Continental Distributing, which was eventually bought by Breakthru Beverage Group.
Surprisingly, Bruce had to convince his father to let him get involved at Garfield’s Beverage Warehouse. “I had to talk my dad into expanding the business,” he explains. “He liked to do it all. He liked to run the register, make deliveries, wait on people. And I said, we’re not going to grow at all if you’re going to keep micromanaging. I ultimately talked him into changing things.”
Expansion And Rebranding
In 1975, the family bought a store in Crystal Lake called Cardinal and began adding new locations under that brand. Four years later, Bruce and his brother, Bennett, launched the marketing company Beverage Concepts, which served as a buying group. “We had more of a True Value/Ace Hardware type thing, where people could call their store Cardinal and we would get them better pricing through the wholesalers,” Bruce says.
At one point, the group comprised 40 stores, most of which were branded as Cardinal, but the Garfield family only owned five, and it started causing confusion among their loyal shoppers. “About seven or eight years ago, it was an issue that our customers were going to other Cardinal stores thinking they were owned by us and that was bothering me because I was losing business,” Bruce says. “So we decided to change the name, and I said let’s just name it after us.”
The rebrand also included a new design. “We wanted to open our own stores from scratch with our look, which was clean, accessible, well-stocked, and modern,” Bruce adds. Likewise, the merchandising strategy turned toward higher-end items. “We wanted to sell better products,” he says.
Currently, there are eight Garfield’s stores, located primarily in Chicago’s northwestern suburbs, with additional units on the way. “We’re actively looking all the time,” Bruce says. “We’re projecting two more stores by the end of the year. But we’re constantly building. Our goal is to eventually have about 25 stores in total.”
Jeremy Brock, Garfield’s chief buying officer and area manager for the suburbs, has been with the company for nearly 23 years. He started in August of 1999 as a stock boy and worked his way up to beer buyer of the Crystal Lake location, followed by store manager four or five years later. Soon the company started acquiring suburban stores, beginning with Palatine, then Barrington, Norridge, and most recently Prospect Heights, which opened in May. Store sizes range from 6,000 square feet in Prospect Heights to 15,000 square feet in Crystal Lake. “Crystal Lake, Palatine, and Norridge are similar in dollar sales and volume,” Brock says. “They all do well.”
For overall trends at the suburban stores, Brock says Tito’s vodka dominates spirits and the Bourbon craze is still going strong, while Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay continue to be hugely popular. “In the ’burbs, we do a lot of wine,” he says. “Wine might be pretty close to liquor as far as sales go. Sauvignon Blancs are hot again, and obviously Cabernet and Chardonnay. It’s been pretty similar for the last five years.”
Brock also sees a lot of experimentation from suburban clientele. “If customers can’t get the highly sought-after Bourbons, they are willing to try something else,” he explains, noting that the Crystal Lake and Palatine locations both have added bars inside the stores within the last few years. “We have the ability to give someone a little taste, and they may have never heard of it before, but they end up liking it.”
The bar concept harkens back to the chain’s early days. “My dad’s store in
Cicero had a bar in the store,” Bruce says. “And now we’ve opened up bars in two of our stores in the suburbs, so we’re going back to the old concept of what my dad started years ago.”
Crystal Lake added its bar during the store’s remodel a few years ago, while Palatine’s remodel and bar were completed in December 2021. “It’s an interesting dynamic in Palatine,” David explains. “Everybody knows everyone, so a bar really made sense for the type of customer who shops there. The bar has been doing better than I thought it would, and the store overall is doing better now, too.”
In addition to managing the suburban stores, Brock puts together the big chainwide buys and is also involved with writing the ads that run in local newspapers, such as the Chicago Tribune, the Daily Herald, and the Northwest Herald, as well as in e-blasts and on digital platforms like Facebook. “I love dealing with suppliers, negotiating deals, and putting buys together,” he says. “I love having my hands in everything. I still stock shelves.”
The City Beckons
While the family had owned a Cardinal store on Central Avenue on the northwestern border of Chicago until they sold it about four years ago, the current lineup of Garfield’s stores in the city are located in trendier or up-and-coming neighborhoods like Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Lakeview. Store size in the city ranges from 2,800 square feet in Lakeview to 5,000 square feet at the South Wicker Park unit. “Our stores in the city have a smaller blueprint than the suburban stores, but they have the exact same look,” Bruce says. “We carry fewer items, but the rents and the overhead are so much more, so we felt we would be better off downsizing and just concentrating on certain neighborhoods.”
In fact, the Central Avenue location is where David started in the family business in 2000. He’d been working day shifts at the Crystal Lake store for a year while attending automotive school at night when Bruce put him in charge of the Chicago unit. “My dad basically threw me in the store and said, ‘Figure it out,’” he recalls. “I learned from experience and made mistakes, but the store was probably doing about $4.5 million when I took over and I managed to double the business.”
In 2016, the opportunity arose to purchase a closed Evolution Wines & Spirits on Milwaukee Avenue that had been owned by the founders of Sam’s Wine and Spirits. “I was interested in the store for a couple reasons: It was in Wicker Park/Bucktown where there’s a younger crowd and a little bit more money, and there was a parking lot,” David says. For this new location, the company’s strategy shifted from a volume-based model with aggressive pricing to offering a more tailored selection with a higher profitability. “We realized that the store was a lot easier to run because you don’t need as many people or as much inventory,” David explains. “The cost to build out a store is a lot less, the capital needed to open the store is a lot less, and the margins are a lot higher. I was like, wow, we’ve been missing out on this.”
The next space they found was further down Milwaukee in South Wicker Park and is housed in a preserved historical building, which presented a challenge for the remodel. “It was a mess when we got there, but we discovered the old original terrazzo flooring and really neat columns, so we tried to keep all the architectural elements,” David says. This building didn’t have a parking lot, and David never thought he would consider a store that didn’t have its own designated parking, but the location turned out to be a good investment.
The third Chicago store is located slightly more north and east on a six-corner intersection in the Lakeview neighborhood. “It was more of a branding and marketing move,” David says. “The exposure there is just so great and we were able to get on this corner for a very reasonable price. So, I thought it may not be a great store, but it’ll stand on its own feet, and the branding aspect adds value.”
With a fourth store slated to open on Wells Street in the near North Side neighborhood of Old Town later this year, Garfield’s continues to grow its visibility in Chicago. “We’re still trying to expand, but retail real estate is so expensive, even with so many vacancies,” David explains, noting that licensing is also an issue. “The city offers a very challenging set of obstacles to try to find a spot that’ll work.”
Sam Mullen, district manager for the city stores, joined the company in 2016 from one of the Cardinal stores that was part of the company’s old buying group. He has seen an uptick in more esoteric items at the chain’s three Chicago locations. “Smaller cordials and liqueurs, smaller vineyards, and craft products in general are in much higher demand in the city,” he says. “You really have to stay on top of trends and keep up with all those different cordials and liqueurs that people are mixing.”
Hand in hand with the popularity of home mixology is a rise in customer education and awareness. “Ever since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, people have been educating themselves to mix their own drinks at home,” Mullen says.
Overall, whisk(e)y is the largest spirits category at the Chicago stores, and Mullen says sales show no signs of plateauing. “Our single barrel program is definitely one of the highest areas of demand,” he adds. “Our [private barrel of] Old Forester cask-strength Bourbon sold out within two days.”
High-end Tequilas have also been making gains, along with alcohol-free drinks. “One of the largest growing segments actually would be non-alcoholic spirits,” Mullen notes. “It’s been huge the last couple years, and especially in the last six months, we’ve seen big growth in that category.”
Mullen has seen an increased interest in natural and sustainable wines as well. “People are more worried about health, wellness, and the environment, and that’s been a huge play that goes into wine,” he explains. Pétillant naturel (pét-nat) wines are also growing in popularity. “It’s one of the oldest styles of winemaking out there, but it’s really caught on within the last couple of years and has really become a trending category within wine for us,” Mullen says.
Other trending wine regions and varietals include Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon from California and Washington state, along with Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and California. Mullen cites northern California’s Shannon Ridge ($12 a 750-ml.) and Washington’s Nelms Road Cabernet ($28) as standouts in the wine category.
When it comes to beer, local brews are exploding. “Chicago’s such a beer-centric city, and we have so many breweries that open up here,” Mullen says, noting Garfield’s top-selling brewers are Maplewood, Revolution, and Half Acre. “In our Bucktown store, we have 27 cooler doors for beer. When we opened that store six and a half years ago, we maybe had one or two cooler doors specifically for Chicago beers. And at this point, we have seven cooler doors just for Chicago beers and it’s not enough.”
At the beginning of 2020, Garfield’s was launching a new website just as the pandemic began. “Business during the pandemic was crazy,” David says. “So we put the brakes on expansion and said let’s focus on that. Thankfully, our website was ready to launch, so the timing for us was great.”
Over two years later, deliveries and curbside pick-up don’t seem to be slowing down. “We had a delivery implemented for about five years when the pandemic started, and it was huge for us,” says Mullen. “And curbside pickup is still being utilized to this day. Every day we’re getting orders for curbside pickup or delivery.”
COO Adam Silverstein, who first joined the company in 2004 as a stock boy at the Central Avenue store, is another employee with a personal connection to the Garfields. “Truth- fully, what brought me to the company was the Garfields,” Silverstein says. “David and my brothers have been friends since kindergarten. After working for the company part-time in high school and college, we had a long conversation and decided I would come on in a management role after I graduated college, as they were looking to expand. The rest is history.”
Part of what makes Garfield’s so appealing as a company is its loyal employees. “We’re all like family,” Brock says. “Bruce Garfield almost raised me. I worked side-by-side with him for 15 years. We’re all a real close-knit group.”
Silverstein agrees. “The best part about working for Garfield’s is the atmosphere,” he says. “I truly enjoy coming to work everyday.”
With its tight team of beverage alcohol retail veterans, Garfield’s is poised to continue unfettered growth under a strong brand identity. And while Bruce now spends half the year in Florida, he is still heavily involved in the business and doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon. “I still enjoy it,” he says. “And even though I’m in Florida, I call every day and I’m still on top of things. So I don’t have any plans on retiring now.”