When Bruce Dierking first entered the drinks retail world, his goal was to revolutionize the modern liquor store and enhance the experience of everyone who shopped at his venue. That goal took shape in 2012 when Dierking, his wife, Carleen, and his business partner, Jim Loftus, opened Hazel’s Beverage World in Boulder, Colorado. “My wife had a big role in coming up with the concept for the store and the ways that it would differ from other liquor stores in the area,” Dierking says, noting that while there was already a liquor store in town, the shopping experience was historically poor, and the people of Boulder needed a safer, cleaner, and more elevated place to buy their alcohol.
Hazel’s was made for ease of shopping, with bright lights, wide aisles, clean facilities, and stunning displays throughout the entire store. Themed around the character of “Hazel,” a female World War II fighter pilot and the store’s mascot, Hazel’s is decorated with vintage aviation motifs, including a scale model of a World War II fighter plane hanging from the rafters. “People are struck with that visual right away, and they really enjoy that,” Dierking says. “We made it a place where everyone would want to shop, and it’s been very successful.”
Successful is an understatement. Hazel’s is the No.1 beverage retailer by sales volume in Boulder, bringing in $35 million in 2022. Hazel’s growth has been exponential, with the single store seeing double-digit gains nearly every year since its inception in 2012. Dierking has collected several honors from Market Watch throughout his beverage alcohol career, including being part of the 2014 Market Watch Leaders class and winning the Alumni Award for Best Website in 2017.
This year, for his achievement in redefining the modern liquor store and his excellence in the beverage alcohol industry, Bruce Dierking has been named the 2023 Market Watch Leaders Retailer of the Year.
A Third Career
Dierking has cycled through several careers in his lifetime. He was a practicing attorney for many years before retiring from law and transitioning to real estate development. He joined forces with Jim Loftus and together, the two purchased a small shopping center in the heart of Boulder. What started as a landlord gig quickly became much more when the building’s former tenants went bankrupt, dropping the shopping center and its unpaid mortgage into Dierking’s lap.
It was out of necessity that Hazel’s was born. The building that houses the store was hemorrhaging money when its former tenants left, and Dierking and Loftus had to act quickly to avoid financial hardship. “They say necessity is the mother of invention, and in this case, it was that necessity that led us to think, ‘Okay, if no one wants to rent this building, what kind of business does our town need?’” Dierking recalls. The pair settled on a new, brighter an safer beverage alcohol store, noting that the area’s other store was dingy, over-priced, and had poor customer service. Thus, Dierking stepped into his third career as a beverage retailer, with Loftus as a silent partner and Carleen by his side as CFO. “It made sense for us to get into this business, if only just to find a use for our building,” Dierking says.
It was Carleen who created the vision for Hazel’s, both in theme and execution. Hazel’s has strong branding throughout the store, with its World War II fighter plane decor and its warehouse-like interior transporting visitors into the world of Hazel, the store’s Rosie the Riveter-esque mascot. Carleen and Dierking wanted the store to be a place where women felt like they could shop, because when it was founded, liquor stores were often less frequented by women who felt unsafe in what was then a stereotypically unclean environment. On top of the female-friendly branding, the 35,000-square-foot store features wide, well-lit aisles, clean bathrooms, pristine displays, and fair pricing. The execution of the store has resulted in the male-to-female demographic at Hazel’s being pretty evenly split at 55%-to-45%, respectively.
The store welcomes all kinds of customers, but with University of Colorado Boulder just a few miles away, the demographic tends to skew toward college-aged people above the legal drinking age. The university brings in a large bulk of Hazel’s business, and the fall football season is historically very busy. “We’ve had this long-standing partnership with our local football team,” Dierking says. “We have a banner in the stadium and we have radio ads with them. Every weekend brings 60,000 people to Boulder, who come to the arena, tailgate, and have watch parties, so that drives a lot of business. It’s definitely something we look forward to.” Hazel’s marketing manager Claire Dowaschinski adds that Hazel’s plans to capture more business during this college football season by offering ticket raffles and product giveaways.
Marketing at Hazel’s is split between digital and grassroots efforts, but Dierking and Dowaschinski have plans to slowly lean more heavily into digital executions too. “It’s the best way to target the younger demographic in Boulder,” Dowaschinski says. Dierking agrees, noting that college-age people are “at the prime age to become customers and are at the discovery end of their adult beverage experience, so they’re an important customer for us to engage with.” As for the older demographic who may not be as likely to see an ad for Hazel’s on social media sites like Instagram, Hazel’s still prints regular ads in “Boulder Weekly” and “Daily Camera,” the two biggest printed news publications in Boulder.
The big draw, however, are the tasting events Hazel’s hosts to entice shoppers to try new brands and products. “Events have always been a big part of our marketing because we believe that experiences drive customers to actually come out and visit us in a retail world where bricks-and-mortar is losing market share to e-commerce,” says Dierking. “Customers can come in on Fridays from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., and we always have beer, wine, and spirits to taste. We try to open it up to all and have experts there to talk about the product and help people learn and sample in order to see if it’s something they might like.”
Wine does big business at Hazel’s, bringing in $14 million just last year and making up roughly 40% of total company sales. Historically, wine has always been the top-selling category at Hazel’s, and the store carries more than 6,000 wine SKUs. But due to a recent change in Colorado law that now allows grocery stores to sell wine, the category is trending down and will likely fall below spirits this year by percentage of sales. Dierking notes, however, that Hazel’s still draws attention from wine lovers who look to sample some of the store’s lesser-known labels, ranging from Altavilla Pinot Grigio ($8 a 750-ml.) to Château Pontet Canet Bordeaux ($180).
Other notable wine labels include a local favorite, the 2020 Bookcliff Cabernet Fran Reserve ($28 a 750-ml.) The store also carries larger brands like Whispering Angel Rose ($20), which does particularly well in the summer months, as well as popular Veuve Clicquot Champagne ($60), which is a boon to the deep base of sparkling wine lovers who frequent Hazel’s.
Spirits follow closely behind wine, accounting for 36% of sales and bringing in approximately $12.5 million in 2022. Hazel’s stocks more than 4,000 spirits SKUs and is a destination for whiskey lovers in particular. Top brands include Maker’s Mark ($50 a 1.75-liter). Jack Daniels ($40), Jim Beam ($30). “We have a really enthusiastic customer base that’s very excited about whiskey and loves to come in and try things,” Dierking says, noting that the staff-curated selection of single barrel whiskies on display are especially successful.
Other spirits that do well at Hazel’s include Tequila, such as Espolòn Blanco ($25 a 750-ml.) and Casamigos Reposado ($50) and RTDs like High Noon ($25 a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans) and Cutwater ($13 a 4-pack), which have become so popular at Hazel’s that Dierking and his staff have recently expanded the shelf space dedicated to the products. “With the demographic in Boulder skewing a bit younger due to the university, we have a lot of customers ages 21-30 coming in and looking for RTDs,” Dierking says. “Boulder also lends itself to a very active outdoor lifestyle and canned products are much easier to take with you when you’re backpacking, camping, or heading to the mountains, so RTDs are definitely something that we’re seeing growth in.”
As for beer, which comprises 21% of sales, the bulk of the store’s 3,000 beer SKUs are craft labels. “Colorado has always had a really thriving craft beer industry, and a lot of that is due to the synergy between local craft brewers and liquor stores,” Dierking explains. “Shoppers can walk in and meet the beer manager and sample the product, and if they think the beer is good we can put it on the shelf right away.” Craft beers such as Finkel & Garf American lager ($11 a 6-pack of 12-ounce cans) and WeldWerks’ Juicy Bits ($16 a 4-pack of 16-ounce cans) are well received by craft beer drinkers, as is Cellar West Artisan Ales’ Farmhouse saison ($10 a 500-ml. bottle), which is a local favorite.
The college demographic also impacts the beer category, with lighter mainstream domestic beers selling well at Hazel’s. Favorites of the student crowd include Keystone Light ($18 a 30-pack of 12-ounce cans) and New Belgium Mountain Time lager ($14 a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans). Beer in Colorado is expected to be cold at time of purchase, so most brews are kept chilled and ready to drink in the 76 cooler doors at Hazel’s.
Though Hazel’s sales were up last year, Dierking expects them to dip in 2023 due to a recent change in Colorado law. Now that convenience stores and grocery stores are able to sell wine products, Dierking foresees that Hazel’s is bound to lose some of its share to those channels who draw more frequent customers. “The challenge is that everyone has to go to the grocery store almost every week to buy food. We all have a laziness gene and there’s a certain amount of people who will say, ‘I’d like to go to Hazel’s for my wine, but I’m busy and I’m here,” says Dierking. “Our business model has never been to try to divert business from the grocery stores. We’re a destination store, so now we need to convince people that it’s still worth their time to make the trip to Hazel’s. I think we can get there, but there’s no question we’ll lose some business to that convenience factor in the meantime.”
Despite the potential decline in business, Hazel’s is still going strong and Dierking is taking the loss as an excuse to refocus on doing what Hazel’s does best: creating an easy, enjoyable experience for its customers. “We’re in this transition period over the next two to five years,” he says. “The important thing is to continue to give consumers a reason to come to Hazel’s and to show them that we’re superior to the grocery stores in not only the shopping experience, but also the selection. That it really is worth that extra trip to come into Hazels, and we’re going to make sure that the people who come out are rewarded for doing that. That’s really our focus.”