With annual spirits sales of $15 million coming from a mere 1,000 square feet of selling space, Elizabeth, New Jersey-based Bayway World of Liquor may boast some of the industry’s most valuable real estate. And while owner Fred Leighton is thrilled that spirits sales are thriving across the country, he likes to note that his store has always been a destination for connoisseurs of fine spirits—particularly whiskies—and has proudly touted the “liquor” in the name for years.
“This isn’t a mahogany store,” says Leighton, in reference to the high-end retailers across the Hudson River in New York City, as well as those in the posh New Jersey suburbs. “Our model is more of a warehouse store, focused on great values and great prices, and we’ve never changed. We built this place on its whisk(e)y reputation, and liquor continues to be who we are.”
Bayway’s $15 million in spirits sales account for half of the store’s annual revenue, which totals around $30 million. Wine and beer each comprise 20% of the store’s total sales, with miscellaneous items accounting for the remaining 10%. Bayway employs 40 staff members year-round, with more personnel coming in during the holidays. Half of the employees have been with the store for at least ten years.
Founded in 1974 on Bayway Avenue by Leighton’s father, Saul, and a business partner, Bayway World of Liquor has become part of the fabric of the Elizabeth community. “I love it when customers tell me that they came in here with their parents years ago and that they shop here now,” Leighton says. “Some people have a cult-like devotion to the store.”
Leighton himself has been a longtime fixture. “I’ve worked here since day one as a 12-year-old, bagging ice, sweeping, and filling the soda shelves,” he says of growing up in the business. Leighton joined the store full time in 1989 and acquired it in 2002.
Upon pulling up to Bayway, there’s no mistaking that it’s a spirits-focused store. The exterior of the building is plastered with ads for brands including Buffalo Trace, Jack Daniel’s, Hennessy, Johnnie Walker, and The Macallan. Two parking lots sandwich the store, providing space for some 100 vehicles, a handful of which sport license plates from New York, which is 16 miles northeast of Elizabeth. The store features about 7,000 square feet of overall selling space and at least 8,000 square feet of warehouse space, mostly located in its basement, along with a private tasting room. Eight registers and glass cabinet displays of high-end spirits dominate the front of the store, while the bulk of Bayway’s spirits selection is located in the shop’s first aisle. Beer is found in the back and chilled in 12 cooler doors, while the central core of the store comprises its wine offerings.
Bayway stocks 2,300 spirits SKUs, ranging from $10 a 750-ml. of Regent blended Scotch to $4,900 for The Macallan M in a Lalique decanter. Other rare whiskies are also available, like The Macallan 50-year-old for $50,000, though it’s not on display. Top-selling brands include Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch ($29), Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey ($26), Bacardi rum ($11), Tito’s Handmade vodka ($20), Fireball cinnamon whisky ($18), and Hennessy VS Cognac ($34). “The whisk(e)y renaissance we’re seeing now is one of the most beautiful things to happen in this industry in a long time,” Leighton says. And Bayway—already known for its whisk(e)y selection and prices—is benefiting significantly, with Bourbons, blends, single malts, and ryes all performing well. Vodka also remains a big category, Leighton adds, driven by Tito’s. “It was a little brand that just took off,” he says. “The price point really helps.”
For the past 14 years Bayway has offered its “Whisky Peddler” private-barrel selections; in recent years, brandy and Tequila options have joined the program. Leighton estimates that the store has collaborated on more than 50 products over the years. Given the diverse selection of spirits on hand, Bayway’s spirits customers run the gamut, from whisk(e)y connoisseurs to longtime devotees of value brands.
Wine’s Key Role
While wine may be a smaller contributor to Bayway’s overall sales, it’s no less important than spirits. The store stocks 2,900 wine SKUs, priced from $4 a 750-ml. of Baile Bravo Dry Red to $1,000 for the 2005 Château Lafite Rothschild. Top-selling labels include Barefoot Pink Moscato ($6), the 2015 Josh Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ($14), and the 2016 Meiomi Pinot Noir ($20). For two decades, the store has promoted the “Bayway 100,” a grouping of about 100 wines that are priced between $5 and $30 and chosen by the wine managers. The Bayway 100 elicit “pure enjoyment and value,” says Leighton. Aside from the price point, there are no strict guidelines for the selection, which is merchandised in the rear of the store. “We taste 5,000 wines a year,” Leighton notes. “Consumers trust us.” Additional wine merchandising at Bayway includes a “Bordeaux values” display, while custom wire shelving is being installed this year and into 2019 to allow the store to lay down some wines.
The store stocks some 900 beer SKUs, retail-priced from $13-$100 and sold mainly by the case. Mexican imports like Corona Extra ($28 a 24-pack of 12-ounce bottles) and Modelo Especial ($25) are top sellers. Craft offerings are also performing well at Bayway, though major domestic labels are seeing their sales slip. While Leighton laments the demise of the big brands—“this store was built on Budweiser,” he says—he’s very committed to the opportunity provided by craft beer.
Miscellaneous items offered by Bayway include drinks accessories, mixers, soft drinks, bottled water, and snacks. Gift baskets are also extremely popular. “We’re a huge basket store,” Leighton notes. “We can’t make enough of them.” Already in 2018, Bayway has sold 1,500 gift baskets, and the store expects to sell 4,000 by the end of the year. While Leighton notes that baskets are labor-intensive, he also sees them as a significant growth area, and as such has added more production space for them.
“We have a large budget for newspapers,” Leighton says, citing the The Star Ledger, New Jersey’s largest-circulation daily, and papers throughout New York’s Staten Island as key publications for advertisements. Bayway frequently hosts in-store spirits, wine, and beer tastings, which are led by store staff as well as brand representatives. Bayway has also sponsored off-site charity events over the years, benefiting such groups as the Soccer Learning Center of Hudson County’s Shooting Stars program for autistic children.
And while the New Jersey liquor store has used its website, Worldofliquor.com, for e-commerce sales, Leighton says recent restrictions from shippers like UPS and FedEx have hampered sales to consumers in many states, resulting in a sales loss of more than $1 million. “But it wasn’t the end of the world,” he notes. “We’re very fortunate in that we don’t rely completely on the internet because we have steady foot traffic.”
Leighton also serves as chairman of the New Jersey Liquor Store Alliance, where he says his focus is on the preservation of the state’s limitation of two retail liquor permits per individual as chains continue to seek more licenses. “Our marketplace runs very well because of independent liquor stores,” he explains. “When chains and big box retailers dominate, the consumer simply has fewer choices.” Leighton also disputes the notion that expanded sales of beverage alcohol in New Jersey grocery stores will be an added convenience for residents, pointing to the state’s dense population. “You may have to drive 40 miles to get to a liquor store in west Texas,” he says. “But that’s not the case in New Jersey.”
Leighton has no plans at this point to add a second location. Instead, he’ll continue to refine the selection and service that his nearly 45-year-old store has always offered. “We’re constantly resetting the shelves and looking to improve efficiencies,” he explains. He says he’d love to carve out more selling space at the Elizabeth store at some point—a move that would certainly allow him to build upon his already valuable retail holding.