As the spirits buyer for Illinois’ 38-unit Binny’s Beverage Depot, Brett Pontoni—who oversees a spirits portfolio comprising nearly 5,000 SKUs—is in the business of not only anticipating trends, but starting them. Pontoni put small-batch spirits on Binny’s shelves long before the U.S. whisk(e)y craze hit its stride, and he continues to be a champion of the regional craft scene. He’s widely credited as a pioneer of the brown spirits boom. In the late 1990s, he helped source the chain’s first single barrel of whisky—an ex-Bourbon cask Caol Ila 12-year-old from Murray McDavid—effectively ushering in Binny’s reign as a whisk(e)y retail powerhouse. Today, Binny’s boasts one of the most impressive single barrel programs in the country, and is also known for its inventive Whiskey Hotline service, which fields whisk(e)y- and other spirits-related questions from customers via an old-fashioned landline. For serving as a trailblazer within the competitive retail space, Brett Pontoni has been named a 2018 Market Watch Leader.
Pontoni got his start in the beverage retail space early on, taking a part-time gig at a discount liquor store while studying economics as an undergrad at Indianapolis’s Butler University. After receiving his MBA from Syracuse University in New York, Pontoni migrated to Chicago in 1993, accepting a general management job offer from Binny’s soon after.
“Everything since then has been baptism by fire,” says Pontoni, who was permitted to drive the company’s forklift as a new hire. The forklift’s brakes, however, were notoriously touchy and, after just three days on the job, Pontoni dropped and destroyed a pallet of valuable Far Niente California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Still, he was given a chance to drive the forklift again shortly after. “There’s something to be said about the freedom of being allowed to make mistakes here at Binny’s,” Pontoni notes. “It’s part of what makes the store different. The crystal ball doesn’t always work, but we’re not afraid to try things to make people want to talk about us and come shop with us.”
Despite the inauspicious start, Binny’s Beverage Depot owner Michael Binstein considers Pontoni one of the “most consequential hires” in the retailer’s history. “You can build a lot of shelving units and just wait for customers to come to you,” Binstein says. “Or you can bring the program to the customer, which is really what Brett has done. And that takes a lot of self-education, marketing, inventory, and investment. While grocery stores and price clubs may want to see turns every seven seconds, we’re willing to sometimes wait seven years on brands. It takes patience, and it takes someone like Brett to make that happen.”
Binstein—the son of the late Harold Binstein, who founded Binny’s in 1948—took over the company’s reins in 1995, overseeing a total of 13 locations at the time—two Binny’s and 11 under the now-defunct Gold Standard Liquors and Chalet store names. This year, Binny’s will grow to 40 stores across the greater Chicago area, with two new locations in Evanston and Joliet slated to open by the end of 2018. Though the stores vary in size, an average Binny’s location spans around 25,000 square feet, with the largest store in the city of Chicago at 50,000 square feet. Binny’s is also known for its cigar offerings, with many of its stores showcasing sizable 500-square-foot humidors.
“Big box sometimes gets a bad rap, but you can’t have a big selection without a big box,” notes Binstein, adding that the company is always on the lookout for additional expansion opportunities. With Pontoni at the helm over the past 15 years, Binny’s spirits selection has diversified significantly, with SKUs that range in price from $10 to $100,000 a bottle. Pontoni spends much of his time tasting, traveling, and touching base with various contacts—from farmers to Fortune 500 CEOs—in an effort to anticipate changing consumer tastes. “If you identify a wave when it becomes a tidal wave, you’re too late,” he notes. “This job means constantly having your ear to the ground.”
Among the up-and-coming segments that Pontoni currently stocks at Binny’s are a bevy of Tequila-adjacent offerings, such as mezcal, raicilla, bacanora, charanda, and sotol—which has proven to be a standout, with Binny’s currently stocking eight sotol labels from a variety of regions. Pontoni similarly plans to dedicate additional shelf space to raicilla in the coming months. Binny’s ability to offer obscure or hard-to-find spirits has created value for the more curious consumer, according to Pontoni. “When a category is just beginning to get its footing is when you find some of the best values,” he explains.
Meanwhile, Pontoni also sees some notable upside within the domestic brandy category, where craft players like Louisville-based Copper & Kings American Brandy Co. and California’s Osocalis Distillery are quickly gaining traction. Likewise, the fast-growing artisanal gin segment is also performing well.
But while craft labels and esoteric offerings are certainly a Binny’s specialty, the retailer remains just as dedicated to offering larger brands and less buzzed-about categories. “If somebody wants to come to one of our stores and buy a mainstream vodka, we’re going to offer them not just that vodka, but a huge selection of vodkas,” Pontoni says. “In this business, you can’t be a snob.”
While Pontoni is always on the lookout for new trends, a large part of his job centers on the continued cultivation of Binny’s renowned whisk(e)y selection. Between barrel samples and new products, he tastes an average of 50 different whiskies a week, and as many as 100 whiskies during peak periods. Under his stewardship, Binny’s single barrel program has expanded steadily, and the retailer now sources hundreds of barrels a year. “When we first started doing single barrels in 1997 or 1998, most people said, ‘You’re out of your mind,’” Pontoni explains. “Nowadays, people are begging to get barrels.” One of the chain’s longest-running single barrel relationships is with Kentucky’s Buffalo Trace Distillery. Binny’s first collaborated with the distillery on a barrel in 2002, and their partnership continues to evolve, with exclusive Bourbon batches and barrel releases several times a year.
Binny’s also makes it a point to collaborate with regional craft players, like DeKalb, Illinois-based Whiskey Acres Distilling Co., New Albany, Indiana’s Huber’s Starlight Distillery, and Michigan’s Journeyman Distillery, among others. Additionally, Binny’s is working on a commemorative Scotch blend—Compass Box Gold Standard with Compass Box founder John Glaser—to launch as part of the retailer’s 70th anniversary this year, and is looking to expand its program with more single barrels from mainstream whisk(e)y producers. “We’ve been pressing a couple of larger suppliers to do barrels that we love and that we think that our customers would love,” Pontoni says. “They’re not yet comfortable allowing a single barrel format, but you’ll never get something that you don’t ask for.”
In recent years, Binny’s single barrel program has gone beyond the whisk(e)y category, Pontoni has partnered with Jérôme Tessendier of France’s Maison Park to source two barrels of single vineyard Cognac. Likewise, as part of a new “boomerang” program, Pontoni is working with Buffalo Trace to send ex-Bourbon barrels to Corazon, Mexico, where they’ve been filled with Tequila that Binny’s plans to bottle as an Añejo in the coming months. The retailer is also creating a Reposado Tequila, aged in the distillery’s Eagle Rare barrels.
In addition to its single barrel program, Binny’s Whiskey Hotline also serves as a major point of differentiation for the retailer. Spearheaded by Pontoni, the Whiskey Hotline launched in 2002, when the brown spirits renaissance was a mere blip on the radar. The education-focused initiative has played a key role in cementing Binny’s status as a trusted resource for information, with customers able to call in and talk to one of three spirits experts for as long as they want, about whatever they want. “The Whiskey Hotline was here before whisk(e)y was cool—in 2002, having a whiskey program was unheard of,” says Binstein. “It was here pre-boom. It’s here during the boom. And it’s going to be here after the boom.” He adds that no customer query goes unanswered.
The hotline’s popularity helped spawn last year’s creation of Binny’s Whiskey Hotline Study Group, which has emerged as a valuable training resource within the company. Any Binny’s employee is welcome to join the group, which meets each Tuesday in-store and involves small, interactive discussions—often led by Pontoni—about whisk(e)y and other spirits categories. The group also embarks on the occasional “field trip” to a distillery—a visit to Lawrenceburg, Indiana-based contract distiller MGP was among their recent excursions—and conducts tasting sessions, which Pontoni says provide an excellent learning opportunity for staffers.
“During a tasting, everybody is throwing out comments, and there’s usually someone who will say, ‘I don’t really like this,” Pontoni explains. “And at that point I’ll stop and say, ‘Okay then, sell it to me.’ It helps them learn to describe what they’ve tasted, and that while they don’t necessarily personally love it, that doesn’t mean it’s not good. You obviously have to have personal preferences, but you also need to learn to get into the mind of the consumer.”
As consumers increasingly opt to shop online, Binny’s has adapted its retail strategy accordingly. The Binny’s app—which launched in 2016—has become a valuable piece of the puzzle, benefiting consumers shopping both remotely and in-store. “The amount of people we see walking around our stores with the Binny’s website or app open on their phone continues to grow,” says Pontoni, noting that he finds digital platforms “complementary” to Binny’s brick-and-mortar business. “The website is an extension of the store. They’re browsing online, but then coming in to see if something’s in stock.”
In addition to attracting spirits connoisseurs with exclusive bottlings and single barrel labels, Binny’s also works to bring people in store with its Whiskey Hotline Internal Briefing email, which is sent out once or twice a week and highlights new releases and staff picks. The chain is also investing in ramping up its social media presence—which runs across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—in an effort to attract the next generation of shoppers. “We have to constantly challenge ourselves to find ways to carry on a daily conversation with our millions of customers,” Binstein says. “Not that long ago, the conversation only took place on the sales floor, over the telephone, or through a newspaper. These platforms are still an important part of our mix, but they’re no longer the most important part.”
But while technology and modes of communication continue to evolve, Binny’s remains committed to offering an unbeatable combination of selection and value at all price points. “Along with a great price and a convenient and expedited store experience, consumers really do want that large selection,” Binstein says. “And that’s something that has always been part of our charter. It’s something that a lot of retailers don’t want to build because it’s expensive and it claims a lot of resources.”
“When we started, our trademarked tagline was ‘If you can’t find it at Binny’s, it’s probably not worth drinking,’” Pontoni says. “Today, that saying is more than a tagline. It’s our rallying cry and our guiding principle.”