Triphammer Wines & Spirits is celebrating 75 years of family entrepreneurship this year.
The store, located at the Triphammer Marketplace, 2255 N. Triphammer Road, is its third generation of management and at its third location.
Al Crowley, once a downtown restauranteur, opened a liquor store at 222 ½ S. Cayuga St. in 1941, in a bathroom-less little block building where the Hotel Ithaca now stands. His wife Margaret took over in the 1950s, and Bob Crowley took over from his mother in the early 1960s and moved the store to what was then called the Triphammer Mall in 1963.
After 20 years away from Ithaca, with stops in Boston, Houston, Portland (Oregon), and Alaska, Bob’s daughter Julie Crowley returned home in 2002 to work in the family business. Shortly thereafter, the Crowleys moved their business into its current location, in a larger space at the Triphammer Marketplace.
In over a decade of working together, Julie and her father, who died in 2013, had the typical philosophical disagreements attendant to running a family business: Bob measured success by cash flow, month-to-month, while Julie, an accountant by trade with a master’s in business administration, told him that wasn’t the whole picture at all.
Over 50 years of business, Bob was the one stocking shelves, sweeping up, buying inventory, and doing payroll with cash and a paper ledger. Julie, working with modern computer technology, manages the Wines & Spirits store’s six full-time employees and another half dozen or so part-timers, along with about 30 employees at Ithaca Coffee Company. There’s a rewards program and an email newsletter to run from her back office, where Molly, the third-generation Boston terrier face of the business and Cuppa Joe, a Brittany spaniel with his own coffee line, greet visitors.
“It’s a totally different business,” Crowley said. “With one person doing everything, you just can’t grow like we have.”
Crowley has wine buyers and managers she calls “fantastic,” with manager Karl Kernan having spent over a decade at Triphammer. For the Ithacan looking to dive into oenophilia, Crowley recommends having her staff put together a case of wine to please and challenge the palate.
“People who can manage this business don’t grow on trees,” Crowley said. “A general knowledge of wine is a lot different from managing inventory. Anyone can buy wine and move it to the back when it doesn’t sell. To buy quality product and turn it over, you’re not just walking off the street with that.”
The Triphammer staff visit local winemakers, and has made the trek to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to pick out its own barrels of Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve, and Wild Turkey, which are bottled and then sent exclusively to their warehouse. The barrels come along, too; Ithaca Coffee has experimented with aging the beans in the bourbon barrels before roasting.
Adding Ithaca Coffee Company to the family “portfolio” has complemented the liquor business, Crowley said. The first Ithaca Coffee store opened in the Gateway Center in 2007, adding a tavern in 2009; their second location next door to the Wines & Spirits store received its license to sell beer and wine about five years ago.
State regulators weren’t thrilled with the tavern concept at first. Crowley said one told her he “thought of Starbucks and said no.” A similar resistance was met back in the 1960s, when Bob Crowley had to wait a while for the state liquor authority to figure out what to do about strip malls.
Now, a customer has food and drink options in one location throughout the day at the Triphammer Marketplace.
“People can get a cup of coffee in the morning, buy their booze in the afternoon, and get a beer at the end of the day,” Crowley said. “When we have tastings, they can go next door and have a glass of wine at the tavern.”
The coffee shop and tavern business also gives Crowley a diversity of revenues and expertise, if the long-discussed change in legislation to allow wines in grocery stores comes to pass.
“Dad was always a good supporter of the local wineries from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s. We have the Finger Lakes wines right up front. You put them in a local grocery store you’ll see the section go like this,” Crowley said, pushing her hands together.
For the 10th anniversary of the new Wines & Spirits store, Crowley renovated the wine tasting bar, where you “can’t buy a drink,” but it “classes up the joint.” There are eight wines on tap for tasting, and vendors coming in to do tastings on weekends use the bar.
Last year, Crowley added recessed lighting over the liquor shelves; the next project will be to replace some worn carpet. These are the projects “no one will notice, but they make us feel good,” she said.
Bob Crowley was prone to asking the question “What the hell are you spending money on that for?” Julie said. “But he said ‘A lot of the things I’ve disagreed with you turned out pretty good.”
“He built a hell of a business,” Crowley said, “and I took it to the next level with his support.” §
Visit triphammerwines.com for information on hours and tastings.