From the Prohibition era to the age of Bordeaux futures and craft beers and spirits, Haskell’s has been involved in every phase of beverage alcohol history for 85 years. The Minneapolis-based chain has earned a solid reputation for its dedication to wine and its high levels of service and product selection. Founded in 1934 and purchased by Jack Farrell in 1970, the business has evolved tremendously over the decades, adding retail units and on-premise offshoots, expanding its product selection, and embracing modern technology to help usher in a new generation of consumers. Today, Haskell’s is a destination for fine wine consumers in greater Minneapolis–St. Paul, earning Farrell top honors as the 2019 Market Watch Leaders Retailer of the Year.
Haskell’s has grown with the country’s wine industry, and Farrell—who serves as CEO and chairman, surrounded by his four sons in other leadership roles—says his business has had many notable achievements. The company was the first beverage alcohol store in the country to offer wine futures, according to Farrell, and the second to offer Beaujolais Nouveau. Farrell was also among the first retailers to sell wines from then-unknown producers like Robert Mondavi, Caymus, and Diamond Creek. His early dedication to wine—as well as his continued support of fine wines and spirits—hasn’t gone unnoticed by shoppers, who have helped the operation’s revenue reach the mid-eight figures.
“Haskell’s had the first bottles from wineries that are now national names,” Farrell says. “We were pioneers. I bought Haskell’s right around the time when wine started to really grow in the United States. We call ourselves ‘The Wine People’ because Haskell’s has been a respected voice of wine around the country for a long time. Very few retailers can boast the kind of background we have.”
Indeed, Haskell’s was different from the start. The business was officially founded by husband-and-wife team Benny and Fritzi Haskell soon after the repeal of Prohibition in 1934. Their name was already familiar within Minneapolis’ underground drinks scene, courtesy of boxer-turned-bootlegger Benny, who ran a secret drinks retail operation in the city during the Prohibition years. He was particularly popular with affluent drinkers, selling and delivering high-end spirits and wines (illegally) with Fritzi’s help. Benny was eventually convicted, and after Repeal he wasn’t allowed to hold an alcohol retail license. So Fritzi took it on, opening a storefront in downtown Minneapolis and importing French wine into the United States. She became a fixture in Minnesota’s wine scene, running the store for nearly 40 years.
In 1970, a year after Benny died, NBA star George Mikan, who was friends with Farrell’s father-in-law, reached out to Farrell, who was living in Chicago at the time, about the Minneapolis store. Along with Mikan, Farrell and two of his family members purchased the store from Fritzi; eventually, Farrell bought out all of his partners. Nearly 50 years later, Farrell and his four sons remain at the helm of the business they’ve grown and reshaped. Today the company has 11 retail stores, a wine bar, and a restaurant, and the Farrells remain committed to the same principles Fritzi first instilled in Haskell’s.
“It was the right fit,” Jack says of his purchase of the store. “We go out of our way for customer service, and our selection is unparalleled. That breeds customer loyalty. We’ve got a great reputation, and everyone knows that if it pertains to wine, you’d better go see Haskell’s first. That’s kept us in business.”
In recent years, competition in the Twin Cities market has expanded rapidly. Jack notes that other key retailers—including national chains Total Wine & More and Target, which is based in Minneapolis—have a high concentration of beverage outlets in the area, and that supermarket chains are also allowed to sell alcohol. Pair that with the recent advent of Sunday sales in Minnesota and the fact that retail companies are only allowed to have one beverage sales license per municipality in the state, and it means a dramatically changing face of drinks retail in Minneapolis–St. Paul.
“We’re doing pretty well considering the degree of challenges we face in Minnesota,” Jack says. He notes that future expansion isn’t out of the question for Haskell’s, but says nothing firm is in the works. “We always have our eyes open,” he explains. “We’re digesting all the recent changes and waiting for the dust to settle before we re-enter expansion mode.”
Jack remains active in the business and works every day, though his four sons—who have all been involved with the company since they were teenagers—now oversee much of the company’s daily operations, each managing a specific part of the business. Ted serves as president, handling purchases and maintaining supplier relationships; Brian is the company’s COO, overseeing operations; John is the vice president of sales, managing sales and merchandising; and Beau is the vice president of e-commerce, maintaining the company’s digital presence. “They’ve each carved a niche for what they do,” Jack says. “I can referee, but they all get along.”
Beau notes that Haskell’s has evolved with the growth of the Twin Cities, expanding into suburban municipalities as urban sprawl took hold. Ted adds that while the stores are destinations, the sheer size of Minneapolis–St. Paul—spanning more than 8,000 square miles when including the surrounding metro areas—requires additional units to go where the people are. “You can’t rest on your laurels with one or two locations and wait for people to come to you,” Ted notes. “Our metro area is so expansive that the distance traveled can be considerable.”
Haskell’s units vary in size, ranging from 3,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet, with the average space equaling roughly 8,000 square feet. Overall, the company boasts 17,000 total SKUs, with most stores carrying 10,000-11,000 SKUs. Wine dominates, comprising 8,700 SKUs and 56% of total company revenue, followed by spirits at 3,300 SKUs and 23% of total revenue, and beer at 3,700 SKUs and 18% of total revenue. The remaining 3% of sales are made up of miscellaneous items like soda, mixers, and glassware.
In all the stores, wine takes up the majority of the floor space. Wines are organized by region and then varietal, and displayed in a mix of wooden laydown racks and black metal shelving. Each store also features a wine wall that houses wines by geographic theme, displayed in slots that allow them to stand up. The company’s newest and largest store, the Maple Grove Super Cellar, has a wine wall that can hold up to 16,000 bottles.
“The stores have a wine-centric layout,” Beau says. “Each store is different and has a unique neighborhood vibe.” Jack adds that the goal is for shoppers to walk into a Haskell’s location and realize they’ve arrived at a store that understands their interest in wine in a way the competition can’t. Chardonnay is the company’s top wine varietal, though rosés and sparkling wines also do well. Haskell’s top-selling wines include Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay ($10 a 750-ml.), Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon ($12), Apothic Red Blend ($7), and the proprietary label Silver Beach Sauvignon Blanc ($12).
The proprietary wine business is a big component at Haskell’s. The company carries private labels in every wine category, and Jack estimates that over 2,000 SKUs—more than 25% of the stores’ total wine SKUs—are proprietary offerings. The wines include labels that Haskell’s buys out in their entirety and true private-label brands that the company crafts with supplier partners. “We carry a lot of Bordeaux houses that other stores in our market don’t bother with,” Ted says, adding that the company seeks out vendors that they believe are better than most others from a given area. Jack notes that profitability in private labels is important, but that the quality-to-value ratio is paramount.
The private-label business was a key factor in Haskell’s opening its eponymous wine bar in December 2017. When an on-premise space became available in the same building as Haskell’s flagship downtown Minneapolis store, the Farrells bought it and transformed it into Haskell’s Wine & Cheese Bar. “We’d always talked about having a wine bar where people could try our products,” Jack explains. “It’s been a gratifying experience, seeing people savoring these wines. We carry national brands, but the bulk of the wine bar’s selection is our private labels.”
The wine bar offers glass pours ($7-$16 a 5-ounce serving) and bottles ($28-$64 a 750-ml.), as well as flights ($30 for three 3-ounce pours) and reserve selections ($12-$22 a 3-ounce pour; $17-$36 a 5-ounce pour; $68-$144 a 750-ml.). Standouts include Caliterra Reserva Chardonnay, Les Vignerons de Tavel Cuvée Royale rosé, and Jean-Philippe Marchand Fixin. Shoppers who have already purchased wine in the retail store can consume it at the bar for a corkage fee. Although wine is the focus, the on-premise venue also serves craft and big-name beers ($6 a 24-ounce can; $7 a draft pour), upscale coffees and teas ($2-$5), and a variety of sandwiches, salads, snacks, and cheese and charcuterie boards ($3-$19). Haskell’s also has the Port of Excelsior restaurant by Excelsior Bay, which has a full bar and a menu of sandwiches, burgers, and larger dishes.
“The wine bar and retail stores are complementary,” Ted says, adding that the on- and off-premise hybrid concept is likely the wave of the future. “We have so many competitors and this is a way to differentiate ourselves.”
Beyond wine, Haskell’s also offers a full assortment of spirits and beers. Vodka remains the dominant spirits seller, though Bourbon is also moving fast. Haskell’s top spirits labels include Tito’s Handmade vodka ($27 a 1.75-liter), Fireball cinnamon-flavored whisky ($12 a 750-ml.), and Captain Morgan Original Spiced rum ($20 a 1.75-liter).
For beer, Haskell’s boasts a full array of craft labels but still sees the most movement with mainstream domestic and imported players. The stores feature cooler doors and shelving displays, and Ted notes that the company has been moving away from branded beer displays in favor of variety-specific setups so that popular styles like sour beers and IPAs are kept together. The company’s top-moving beers include Coors Light, Miller Lite, and Michelob Golden Draft Light (each $18 a 24-pack of 12-ounce cans). Crafts by local producer Surly Brewing Co. are also popular ($11 a 6-pack of cans for Furious IPA). “We highlight wines first, but spirits and beer are also important,” Beau says.
To encourage experimentation and broaden shoppers’ palates, Haskell’s puts major emphasis on in-store tasting events for wine, spirits, and beer. Jack estimates that in any given week, the company hosts more than 25 events across the 11 store locations, ranging from traditional tastings to informational and educational sessions. Suppliers sponsor some of the events, but Haskell’s runs many itself. “These events are very important to the business,” Jack says. “We see sales in some stores go up by double digits after an event, a 20%-25% increase in sales in one day. Wine dominates, but we love having craft beer and whisk(e)y people come in too.”
These events help create a loyal and happy customer base, which is supported by a rewards program. The program—which was started in 2015 and costs $20 a year to join—has amassed 12,000 members, who receive special pricing promotions, first looks at limited-release products, and cash back after accumulating points. They also receive invitations to special events, such as the monthly beer and wine cruises Haskell’s hosts on the St. Croix River during the summer.
Philanthropy and community involvement are important for the company as well, and the Farrells take pride in the number of local charities and organizations they’ve supported, from the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minneapolis Institute of Art to the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre Co. and the Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery. The Farrells are active on radio and television; Jack does a Weekly Wine Chat on a local radio station and Ted is a regular on morning television show Twin Cities Live. These efforts, combined with traditional radio, television, newspaper, and billboard advertising, increase awareness and further the stores’ positioning as retail destinations.
All of that, combined with the company’s active social media presence and its robust email contact list of nearly 60,000 people, create a high level of relevancy for Twin Cities shoppers. The technology component is key at Haskell’s. The company revamped its website about two years ago and is happy with its reception, especially since internet sales are a steady part of the business. Beau admits that the online retail component is challenging because of the country’s ever-changing shipping laws, but credits the website with contributing a few million dollars in revenue. Haskell’s also recently developed a mobile app that allows shoppers to order products from their phones and tablets for in-store pickup or delivery.
The Farrells aren’t actively focused on expansion today, but the family is always open to future growth. “If the right opportunity comes up, we’ll pounce on it,” Ted says. “We aim to be the store that knows its customers the best. We know what people drink and we know their families and who they drink with. We establish relationships.”