On a quiet residential street in Costa Mesa, CA, one block removed from the hustle and bustle of 17th Street is this most amazing purveyor of just about anything alcoholic. Hi-Time Wine Cellars is a 53 year old family-owned company, doing business at the same location for the past 27 years. The store has always enjoyed the status of being a “destination” location, not one depending on the impulse buy, and as such has fit right into its residential neighborhood. The business currently employs 35 full- and 25 part-time employees.
I recently spent time with Forrest Cokely, the resident “guru” (he claimed to be “just a clerk in a liquor store”, but we both knew that wasn’t true … more about that a little later), and Keith Hansen, Spirits Manager. Keith has worked at Hi-Times for over 40 years. As son of the owners, and now part owner himself, Keith’s pay in his younger days was Coca Cola and candy bars! Keith shared these insights:
RP: What is Hi-Time Wine Cellars most known for?
KH: Having a huge selection of wines, many rather odd and unusual, and spirits at great prices.
RP: What is your assessment of the current business climate for wines and spirits?
KH: Spirit sales are up; CA wines have stabilized. Volume is up, and we are selling more product, but at less cost per bottle. Overall income is okay, but we have to work harder for it.
RP: What are your top three selling times of the year?
KH: Christmas, New Years, Fourth of July
RP: What are the top five categories of wine and spirits sold at this store?
KH: California wines, led by Cabernets; Tequila, by dollar volume; Vodka, by bottle volume; and whisky. Champagne, of course, is huge during the holidays; not so much throughout the year.
RP: Regarding current trends, what are you seeing in these categories:
- What’s growing? What’s declining? A big growth in rums and high-end gins. Brandies are declining a bit, but we do carry at least four Mexican brandies.
- Tequila? Increasing in popularity; we’re always adding new brands and deleting ones whose sales have slowed.
- Single malt Scotch? Increasing.
- Vodka? Very dynamic. 1.75 liter, reasonably priced product is on the increase. Customers are experimenting with different brands, especially at different price points.
- Rum? Definitely on the upswing, and has been for the past four years or so. We’re proud to carry Ron Zacapta 23 and XO from Guatemala, Zaffra 21 from Panama, Ron Matusalem Gran Reserva, and Ron Millonario.
- American whiskey, especially rye? Rye is definitely doing well. There has also been an upturn in white spirits for use in mixed drinks.
RP: How does selling food, cigars, and accessories, like glassware, effect your sales?
KH: Three main reasons: 1) It helps increase our profit margin; we have a great sales staff that knows how to sell these products, as a service, to our customers; a lot of what we carry is unique, and all of it is high quality; 2) Convenience. When a customer has purchased an expensive bottle of wine, whiskey, tequila, vodka – whatever – they appreciate the opportunity to purchase appropriate glasses, food, or gift accessories to go with it; and 3) Having these things readily available makes our custom gift basket business much more efficient and customized.
RP: What are you most proud of regarding Hi-Time Wine Cellars?
KH: Seeing customers bring friends into the store and show them around, saying “see, I told you”. Word of mouth is our greatest sales tool.
Forrest Cokely, an eight year employee at Hi-Time, is hardly a “clerk in a liquor store”, as he describes himself, with a wink. He is a regular contributor to several drink websites, maintains his own spirits-oriented blog (adrinkwithforrest.blogspot.com), and is a respected judge on many spirits panels. We talked a little bit about spirits in general, and then went to Mexican spirits in particular.
RP: You organize and host many tastings here at the store. What role does education play in determining what brands your customers buy?
FC: Our customers appreciate learning more about wines and spirits. Among members of the Hi-Time staff, our suppliers, and brand ambassadors, we have great resources to present educational and fun events for our customers.
RP: Hi-Times’s lock box area is phenomenal. Comments?
FC: In our remodel a few years ago, we combined several areas where we kept the rare and very limited edition spirits under lock and key into one space. We have room for over 250 facings, three or four bottles deep. It’s a major attraction for serious spirits connoisseurs.
RP: A New York Times article explored Mezcals, and lauded Del Maguey’s Chichicapa and Minero. Any stories?
FC: Sales of the Mezcals we carry have tripled lately. We’re proud to carry the complete range of eight Del Magueys, including the two the article mentioned, along with many that were launched from right here at Hi-Time.
RP: Sotol. It’s an exotic drink – does it have an exotic story?
FC: The Pancho Villa and Tarahumara tie-ins are wonderful points to highlight. We carry three expressions of Hacienda del Chihuahua Sotol – the only brand now available
RP: Are there any other Mexican spirits you’d like to talk about?
FC: We’re proud to offer well over 600 tequilas. Also, 1921 Cream Liqueur, and Kahula coffee liqueur are popular and steady sellers with our customers.