Anyone familiar with the Syracuse, New York food and beverage scene is likely to know the Pascale name. It all started in 1978, when Charles “Chuck” Pascale, at just 22 years old, bought a liquor store with his brother Neal in their hometown of Liverpool, New York, a suburb of Syracuse, and renamed it Pascale’s Liquors. “Our mom had worked in the store for a little bit, and when it went up for sale, we just went for it,” Chuck says. “We’re entrepreneurial in that way—our dad was working class, a mason contractor, but he was an independent guy who believed in doing things on your own rather than going to work for the state or the city. So that was how we wanted to live our lives, and, before we knew it, we owned several businesses.”
Chuck eventually went on to open his own store, Pascale’s Liquor Square, which he’s grown into an $8 million business, all while he and his brother opened and managed three revered restaurants throughout the Syracuse area. There’s no denying the Pascale name has had a major impact on the city’s beverage alcohol and restaurant industries, and Chuck has been a big part of that. “There are at least three other people who own spirits stores in the Syracuse area who once worked for me,” he says. “And there’s about a dozen who work for either Southern Glazer’s, Empire Merchants, Frederick Wildman, or Winebow who all started with me, either at my store or at one of our restaurants. I’m proud of that.”
For his long-time influence on the beverage alcohol industries in his city, Chuck Pascale has been named a 2022 Market Watch Leader.
Building A Reputation
Chuck Pascale is certainly industrious. In 2000, after 22 years running Pascale’s Liquors with his brother in Liverpool, New York, he struck out on his own, purchasing a 20,000-square-foot retail space called Liquor Square on Erie Boulevard in Syracuse. He purchased the store from two Market Watch Leaders: the late Ted Greenstein and his sister Bette Behrens. Chuck added the family name to the store, making it Pascale’s Liquor Square. In 2010, he relocated the store about a quarter mile south to a 16,000-square-foot roller rink-turned-shop and carry warehouse for food and restaurant supplies, where it stands today. “With the high, unexposed ceilings and warehouse effect of the store, it’s allowed us to minimize storage space,” Chuck says. “I think having more product out on the floor and more space for displays and tasting areas makes it easier for customers to shop, and it also lets us be more creative and introduce products in a clever way.”
Concurrently with their retail businesses, Chuck and Neal entered the local restaurant scene together. They opened the French-inspired spot Pascale Wine Bar & Restaurant in 1982, which earned Wine Spectator’s “Best of Award of Excellence,” then another—a steakhouse called Justin’s Grill—in 2000, and a third—Pascale Italian Bistro at Drumlins Country Club—in 2010. “The restaurants were unique to Syracuse at that point because they were higher end with sizable wine lists,” Chuck says. “Both the restaurants and the stores built up credible reputations over the years and assured people that we knew our stuff.”
By early 2020, Neal was ready to retire, so the brothers closed the restaurants. “Purely by serendipity we walked away from the restaurant business right before the pandemic,” Chuck points out. “People may think we were smart, but we can’t take credit for that—I think we were just lucky.” Neal still owns the Liverpool store, but his son Nick has taken over day-to-day management. Nick’s wife, Kendra, owns Pascale’s Wine & Liquors in Fayetteville, another suburb of Syracuse, which opened in fall 2021. (Though they advertise together, the three stores are all separate, independent businesses.) Chuck is going strong at Pascale’s Liquor Square, where he’s still very much involved and hopes to be for several more years. “I still go in three-to-four days a week and enjoy teaching and mentoring my staff,” he says. “I still love going to work.”
Staying On Trend
Annual sales at Pascale’s Liquor Square, which has been a Wine & Spirits Guild member since 2005, have remained steadily around $8 million for the past three years, and Chuck expects that number to increase at least 2%, and perhaps as high as 4%, this year. Chuck attributes the store’s success to both his family’s reputation within the community and his commitment to being progressive and paying attention to what’s trending in the industry. “Everything is changing so fast, it’s just about trying to keep up with what people like,” he says, adding that his customer base spans demographics. “We’re right near Syracuse University and Le Moyne College, and we’re also close to a lot of businesses, as we’re two miles from the center of Syracuse.”
Spirits account for 55% of sales at the store, which carries 2,500 spirits SKUs. Chuck notes that value-price spirits Smirnoff vodka ($20 a 1.75-liter) and Bacardi Superior rum ($20) are always popular, but there’s also a growing trend in premium Tequilas like Cincoro Blanco ($100 a 750-ml.) and Clase Azul Blanco ($130). “Scotch drinkers are slowly coming back after the repeal of the single malt tariffs,” Chuck adds. “Those drinkers have discovered Japanese single malts like those from Suntory.” Hibiki Harmony ($80) and Yamazaki ($145) are especially popular. Chuck also notes that coming out of Covid-19, customers are looking to experiment by making their own cocktails, which has helped sales of botanical liqueurs like Rockey’s ($21) and St-Germain ($31).
But the biggest change in spirits trends that Chuck has seen over the years has been the Bourbon boom. “It’s been an interesting 40-plus years of seeing the changes in Syracuse, and we’ve adapted to them—I mean, we were really pushing wine and selling futures in the ’80s and ’90s, and these days our store is full of Bourbon. We’ve really been on the forefront of that trend,” he says. “We’ve sent members of our staff to Kentucky to visit the distilleries and taste barrel samples for future purchases. Working with our distributors, our inventory constantly changes, bringing in Bourbons, ryes, and whiskeys not only from Kentucky, but the rest of the U.S. and our local New York distilleries. With weekly in-store tastings for both the staff and customers, we’re the go-to Bourbon store in Syracuse.” Some of the store’s top-selling Bourbons include Elijah Craig Small Batch ($29 a 750-ml.), Russell’s Reserve 10-year-old Small Batch ($44), Woodinville Single Barrel ($66), and Jefferson’s Ocean Aged At Sea ($75).
“Our store also draws people from the surrounding regions because we carry and have knowledge about Armagnac and Calvados—spirits that you don’t ordinarily see in stores around this area,” Chuck adds, noting his pride in building appreciation for these spirits. Best-sellers include Darroze Les Grands Assemblages 30-year-old Bas-Armagnac ($130 a 750-ml.), Château De Pellehaut Bas-Armagnac ($48), Domaine de Jean-Bon BasArmagnac ($69), Chevalier des Touches VSOP Calvados ($60), Pierre Huet Calvados ($30), and Château du Breuil 15-year-old Calvados ($100). “Even millennials who are drinking Bourbons are realizing that spirits like Cognac, Armagnac, eau de vie, and grappa are also great,” Chuck says.
As for wine, the store carries 1,500 SKUs, which make up 45% of sales. “Our wine customers run the gamut from the buyer of magnums of Liberty Creek and Yellow Tail wines to the prestige Napa Valley Cabernets Sauvignons from Caymus and Opus One,” Chuck notes. The former value brands sell for $7 and $10 a 1.5-liter, respectively, while the latter sell for $90 and $320 a 750-ml., respectively. Chuck also notes that the store’s Barolo selection is “second to none in the Central New York area,” with best-selling labels the 2015 Natale Verga ($30 a 750ml.), 2017 Luigi Pira Margheria 2017 ($55), 2015 Rocche dei Manzoni Vigna d’la Roul ($90), 2017 Paolo Scavino Bric Del Fiasc ($119), and 2013 Aldo Conterno Colonnello ($150).
It’s not only spirits trends that have changed a lot in the years Chuck has been in the business. “In the ’80s our staff had to learn all of the Crus of Beaujolais—now I don’t even think people know what that means,” he says. “When I grew up, it was all about Bordeaux and Burgundy and the Rhônes and Italian wines and about aging them, and now it seems like wines are made to be consumed early and it’s an entirely different mindset and approach. There’s a generation out there saying, ‘I want to buy it now and drink it now.’ It’s a changing world.”
But Chuck is far from afraid of change—in fact, he thinks that’s what makes this industry fun. “We may not be in the Bordeaux business like we used to be, but we still get a kick out of finding really neat wines,” he says. “Syracuse has become a sanctuary city, so I’ve been tasting Greek wines, I’m bringing in bottles from Corsica, from Croatia. We sell Georgian wines in the store because there’s a Georgian population here, and we’re carrying liqueurs from all over the world, like Sambuca and Arak Razzouk, which is neat. It’s about embracing the multicultural development happening in this area.”
Chuck notes that his customers are embracing changes more, too. “I’m finally seeing people interested in grapes besides Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Pinot Grigio, and we carry a large amount of Italian, French, and Spanish white varietals that are absolutely delicious, whether it’s Verdicchio or Verdejo or Godello, and they can be under $15,” he says. “To me that’s the real exciting part: challenging people to try different things and think outside the box. I tease people that if you had to eat lobster every night, would you? Even if you love lobster, I think you’d get pretty damn bored of it.” He adds that training his staff about food and wine pairings is a helpful way to encourage customers to try new varietals. “With suggestions like a Côtes du Roussillon from Michel Chapoutier to pair with a steak instead of a fruit-forward Cabernet Sauvignon, we get repeat customers and a following,” he says.
Luckily for both his staff and customers, Chuck is passionate about the industry and even more so about sharing the knowledge he’s accrued from 44 years in the profession and from his travels, including to the wine regions of Argentina, Australia, Austria, Chile, Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, and Spain. “I still think it’s fun to teach especially the new generation, and it’s fascinating for me to learn from them too,” he says. “If they want to know information about a wine or region or any of that, it’s fun to let them know, and I try to never lecture. I just think that it’s important to know about food and spirits and wine and the great history behind them, and how these things were produced and made over the years and how they’ve evolved. Culturally, that’s where I come from.”