Spirits Are High For Spirit World’s Future 7/18/14 07/17/14 10:45:33 PM
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Laurie Wolford shifted careers in 2008, trading her work as a lawyer for the reins of the popular wine and spirits store.
Moving to Aksarben Village
Spirits Are High
For Spirit World’s Future
By Julien R. Fielding
The Daily Record
Laurie Wolford has found her passion.
Some years ago, the former business attorney developed an interest in food and wine, and as that interest grew, she happened upon an opportunity. “It just sort of fell into my lap,” she said.
She learned that family acquaintance, Denny Lewis, the owner of Spirit World, wanted to retire. She chatted with him about the possibilities, and in 2008, became the specialty wine, beer and liquor store’s new owner.
“It needed a facelift, literally and figuratively,” she said. “It needed some general updating – remodeling and cleaning – and because he didn’t use computers, we needed a point-of-sale system and a website.”
When she bought Spirit World, wine was their most popular item, but market demand changes, and today, her customers are seeking out harder-to-find cordials and whiskeys.
“People who go to any of the great craft cocktail bars in town decide that they want to try and make the drinks at home,” she said. “We also work with many bars in town for ideas on ingredients and cocktails. They learn from us, and we learn from them.
“Whiskey, in general, scotch and bourbon are huge sellers. Customers want craft whiskeys that are ‘locally made,’ and have small production. The biggest whiskeys come from Ireland, Scotland, Canada and the USA.” Japan, too, produces whiskey but they aren’t as readily available stateside, she added.
Four or five years ago, absinthe got a boost in sales when the law changed regarding the importation of French products. “One of the ingredients is considered a hallucinogen,” she said. “Now you can get true absinthe, and it is an ingredient in one or two craft cocktails. But for many people, once they tried it, they were satisfied. Not many people like it enough to buy it regularly.”
Another product that has waxed and waned is RumChata, which is rum and real dairy cream. “Two years ago, you couldn’t keep it on the shelf. Now, it’s not as popular. Fireball Cinnamon Whisky is what’s popular now. We can’t keep it on the shelf.”
Initially, Wolford was very hands-on in making buying decisions regarding alcohol, but she said that she doesn’t have the time to do that anymore. “I have great managers who do that now,” she said. “I’m not as involved as I used to be, mostly because I have great people I trust.”
A few of those “great people,” include Devin Coyle, retail manager and whiskey consultant; and Jon Tilden, the “beer guy.”
Since she bought Spirit World, there have been other changes in the industry that have made her rethink her business strategy.
“Larger grocery stores have dedicated alcohol/liquor sections, and they can be convenient,” she said. “They are our biggest competition. We have a really good selection, and we take a very personal approach. Most people come to us because we know our products well. We hand select everything we carry and we know how they taste. We can tell customers what pairs well with what food.”
Wolford’s road to entrepreneurship might seem unusual, but it is in fact, quite logical.
Born in Omaha, the Westside High School graduate attended Iowa State, where she majored in business management. Next, she attended the University of Nebraska College of Law.
“My grandfather was an attorney,” she said. “For my undergraduate degree, my emphasis was on HR, and, because there are a lot of legal issues in HR, I thought that law would complement my background. I didn’t originally think I would practice law.” But that changed.
She was clerking for Abrahams Kaslow & Cassman, and enjoyed it enough to stay in the profession until 2007. “I kept my license active for five years, as a back-up plan, but then I let it go inactive one or two years ago,” she said. “Our business is really growing and evolving.”
Spirit World is embarking on some big changes. It will move from its current location at 7517 Pacific St. to Aksarben Village, in the space formerly occupied by Wohlner’s Grocery & Deli.
“I talked to Jay Noddle (Aksarben’s lead developer) a few years ago about our being there, but, then, the timing wasn’t right.
“Then Wohlner’s sold to a new owner. About six to nine months ago, we were closer to our lease ending, and I started thinking about other options. There is so much going on there, and the developer supports the businesses there; they have a partnership with their tenants. They aren’t just a landlord. They are a good fit for us, and it will give us additional foot traffic. Currently we are a destination spot.”
The move will allow them to increase their square footage, and expand what they offer. “We have 7,200 square feet and will increase that by 20 percent, to 8,500 square feet,” she said. “That’s only 60 percent of the grocery store, too. It’s a big space. After it is remodeled it won’t even look like the same space. This is a big deal for us; it’s a thrill.”
In addition to its retail business, Spirit World has a café, where Chef Michael Mattheis creates his signature hot sandwiches, such as the Spirit World Cuban and the Pacific Street Reuben; salads, soups and desserts, including cookies and bars. Everything is made from quality ingredients, and everything is made from scratch. “We even bake our own breads,” she said.
At the new location, the café will eschew deli cases for “off-the-menu dining.”
“The deli case concept is in grocery stores, and we are getting away from that,” she said. Spirit World will continue to offer catering, carry out and delivery services. New also will be a private party room; and a tasting bar, where customers – for a fee – can sample wine and whiskey.
Because Spirit World is a locally owned business, Wolford does her best to support local producers. She recently connected with some entrepreneurs at the Omaha Farmer’s Market, and is now carrying their products, including cheeses, which, of course, pair well with many of her store’s wines and liquors.
Spirit World will be open at its Aksarben Village location in mid-October, just in time for the holidays. “The holiday season is huge for us,” she said.
When Wolford isn’t at work, she likes to run and spend time with her family. She and her husband, Eric, who is employed at Bellevue University, have two young children – ages 3½ and 16 months. And she remains close with her parents, who are her silent partners. Her father is a doctor; her mother is retired.
For more information about Spirit World, go to www.spiritworldwine.com.