What does it take to succeed in NYC?
At the corner of 54th St and Second Avenue you’ll find my favorite spirits and wine shop. It’s close but not exactly in my neighborhood but I go out of my way to shop there. It’s arguably the best in Midtown.
If you live in Manhattan, chances are there’s a store up the street, around the corner or, a block over. There are “destination” shops like Astor, Beacon and others so I suppose Ambassador fits this genre – well worth going out of your way. Besides, they deliver. But before I talk about them, let’s spend a few minutes on the New York retail scene.
Only in New York
It’s a complicated market at all levels of the Booze Business.
As recently as the 1980s, there were over ten significant distributors. Today there are only two main players. While the gap has been partly filled with wine and beer distributors moving into spirits, the market is in a state of limited competition aka as an oligopoly. In short, the wholesalers call the shots.
A consumer living in the boroughs other than Manhattan can purchase most alcohol products for less than in “the city.” Lower overhead is the main reason.
Thanks to state tax differences, for many consumers it makes more sense to go across the river to New Jersey if you’re looking to stock up, particularly spirits. The difference in state excise taxes is almost a dollar per gallon –$6.44 in NY vs. $5.50 in NJ.
(I used to joke that a car coming to NY from NJ whose trunk was much lower than its hood probably was either a small New York State bar owner stocking up or someone having a party.)
So imagine you’re a retailer in Manhattan. Your rent is high; you have to compete with many businesses for qualified employees; your customer base (in the midtown area) has changed, with LLCs buying apartments that are frequently unlived in; and the guy down the street is selling the same brand as you for less.
It’s not a level playing field
There’s a rule in NY State that only a single individual can hold a license to sell wine or spirits at retail. Its origin has to do with preventing chain liquor stores from doing business in the state. But guess what? It doesn’t stop retailers from opening other stores in the names of their family members.
So, when a distributor has a multi-case discount, the sole proprietor store can’t take advantage of it but the stores “owned” by cousins, sisters, in-laws can. In short, that’s how many NY State stores beat the system.
This is the environment in which Ambassador Wines & Spirits operates.
The Ambassador Story
Meet Leonard Phillips, the owner of the store and whose family has been in the business since 1973. It started as a small shop run by his grandmother that has grown to the current 1400 square feet store on two levels.
Leonard’s original calling in life was to be a biochemist and ultimately become a physician in the military. However, as we all know, life has a way of getting in the way of plans and dreams. But if you spend five minutes with Leonard you quickly realize that his passion and tenacity is what has makes Ambassador unique.
Here’s why I think the store is special
This is not the place to go to buy the popular vodka and expect a discounted price. It is the place to go where you will find new or extraordinary products that appeal to the spirits enthusiast and aficionado. Their selection of whiskies (particularly scotch and single malts) is unbelievable.
In fact, if you’re a follower of this blog, you know that I love the whiskies and gin from Koval Distillery. All their products are available at Ambassador, which is how I came to the store in the first place.
Their wine selection is also second to none. But, interestingly, thanks to the whiskey and craft spirits explosion, wine as a percent of volume has gone from 80% to 65% in the last 3 to 4 years.
In addition to wine and liquor, their selection of Sake, Soju and Sochu is, in my opinion, the best in NYC. If you’re looking for hard cider this is the place to go. And, while you’re in the store check out their champagne and sparkling wine selections.
There is even a room downstairs for tastings and education either conducted by companies or groups of friends wanting to discover new and interesting products.
Hey, don’t take my word for it. Go to Yelp and check them out. Not only did they get 4.5 out of 5 but also the comments left by reviewers are amazing.
It’s about the people
Most of the reviews on Yelp talk about the knowledge, helpfulness and friendliness of the staff. In most wine and spirits shops I’ve gone to around the country over the years, most should have the slogan, “shut up and buy.” This is a store whose service orientation matches their style of business – personal recommendations based on knowing the customer and the products they sell.
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When I asked Leonard about how he copes with the peculiarities of doing business in New York City his response was mixed. On the one hand, as a true sole proprietor store facing competition from multi-owned stores and their ability to deeply discount, he describes the situation as akin to being a “one legged man in an ass kicking contest.”
At the same time, or perhaps as a result, he views Ambassador Wine and Spirits as a Dylan’s Candy store for adults.
An article in Serious Eats sums it up nicely:
Ambassador is the liquor store I wish I had in my neighborhood; you find yourself wanting to hang out there, even if you don’t really need to buy anything.
My kind of store.