We love to see old businesses or buildings get a new lease on life with a fresh concept or idea, especially for a business that wants to open its doors to the community. One such place is Hills Wine and Spirits at the corner of Washington and Eagle Streets. The location was the home of Fiori’s Liquor & Pizza for the last two decades. The new renovation has been having a great response from the neighbors who, aside from sharing stories of the olden days, are pleased to see this specialty liquor shop and its owner Andrew Haisha wanting to join in and be a part of the growth in the neighborhood. We sat down with Andrew to find out more about the business and his passion for liquor and his commitment to being part of the Mission Hills and Hillcrest communities.
Give us a little history about the location?
I can’t give you precise dates of what use to be here prior to the last five years. From what customers have told me about Fiori’s plot, it was a pizza/liquor store for over 30 years; I have customers that come in 30 to 40 years old saying that they used to come in when Fiori’s had the original pizza place and right here (where the counter is now) they would play old school arcade style video games. I believe the pizza has been around since 1976, from what the sign says on the new building down the street. That’s when Fiori’s became a staple in Mission Hills. Fiori’s ran it as a liquor store and pizza shop for about 10 years I believe. Multiple owners came in to the store, but they all kept it “as is” and full of clutter. The last owner did the best he could considering how much it costs to renovate a store, people think it’s cheap, but it’s not.
I came to hear about it from a friend, he knew I wanted to get back into the liquor store business (which started for me as a kid with my dad’s store), so I came to the store and looked at it. I kind of knew who the owner of the store was, and I looked at it and I just saw instantly a vision for the store. I knew that the store could be really nice. The outside was kind of rundown and it needed to be cleaned up; I can look at a building and instantly see how I would improve it from new stucco on the exterior to a cleaner parking lot. I knew the store had much potential in this area to be a seller of fine wine and spirits.
Tell us about your history in the industry?
In Michigan, my dad would take me to work with him on the weekends, per my request, he really did not want me in the business that early on, but I kept pushing him: “Dad, can I come work with you, can I come to work with you?” So, I started bagging groceries, stocking shelves, and filling the coolers but I was too young and not tall enough to work the register at that point. As time went on, working two days a week for him turned into working on every break that we got from school. Instead of going out on vacations with my brother and my sister when my mom would take them, I opted to go to work with my dad and start making money. He would give me a paycheck; I was making 4 or 5 bucks an hour at the time. I loved the business. I loved being a merchant, it’s taught me a lot about life and money at a really young age; how to balance your checkbook, how to not overspend, and how to save up for rainy days. Liquor is not expensive to buy so the more you can save for your own personal growth to put it back into the store the better your store will do. If your constantly taking profits from the store, your store is going to show for it. For me I keep dumping my profits back into my business and that’s what my father taught me at a very young age, and I can’t thank him enough for what he has taught me about the business. How many eight-year-olds are in the business of stocking shelves and working now adays? My eight-year-old would never do it. But I enjoyed it. I enjoyed being 12 and 13 years old with money in my pocket from my paycheck and it was a good amount of money at the time.
I came to San Diego after we sold our store of 27 years in Michigan. I needed a change. I was tired of the Michigan life; Detroit was a very tough area at the time. A lot of business closed down; Detroit fell apart. Some buddies of mine recruited me out to San Diego and I started my own telecommunications business, I was a preferred retailer for Sprint, I opened 6 stores under their supervision, and in 2013 I sold the company and I started investing in real estate after that.
I was kind of bored sitting at home. I would go to my friends’ stores, and I would be there for hours and would even help them on the register, and a couple of my friends would say, “You know what, you love this business!”, and I would agree. The profits are not what they used to be, but I just love the liquor business, it gives me a spark! Even when I go into larger retailers, I’m constantly looking into new products coming up. I have always kept up with the market even when I was not in the business. I knew when Jameson was coming up with something new; I knew when Tito’s was the number one spirit in the world; I knew when there was a new wine out. I am connected to and interested in this well of information via alerts or beverage journals. I would stay on top of it all so finally I just decided to do it and I got back in to the liquor store business. I found this opportunity here in Mission Hills, and I don’t think I would have done it elsewhere. I think the Mission Hills/Hillcrest area is the right fit for me.
Offering knowledge to the customer:
70% or more of consumers walking in to a wine establishment do not know what they want. There are too many labels from too many regions, too many varieties which can be confusing. It’s our job in a store like this to be able to recommend a certain bottle of liquor or, especially, wine. Wine can be very challenging for a consumer to find what they want. You have to ask what they’re eating today: Are they having beef, chicken, fish, or just vegetables? Each wine compliments what they are eating that day. If my wife is making beef and potatoes for dinner, I’m not going home with a chardonnay. I want a big bold Cabernet that would pair well with that, but if I’m just chilling outside and having some cheese then any of the wines will work. People have to know that an expensive bottle of wine doesn’t guarantee you’re going to like it, every bottle of wine changes. Today you and I can drink a bottle of wine and then tomorrow I can have that same bottle of wine with someone else and it’s not going to be the same depending on what food each person has consumed which alters your body’s pH balance. A large consumption of lemon today can make any wine horrible tomorrow. This is why alkaline water is so popular now because it balances your pH levels. pH levels are very important when it comes to wine and sipping liquor; not so much with beer because “beer is beer” and the carbonation masks everything.
When customers come in to our store and they see the amount of single malt, Irish whiskey, vodka or tequila we have they might get overwhelmed. And we ask, “What are you making?” If you’re doing a margarita take Jose Cuervo because why are you going to spend X amount of dollars on a bottle of Don Julio to make a margarita. Yes, it’s going to be a better margarita but is it worth the price of admission? To me it’s not and I have to recommend that to our customers. We like to ask questions; the majority of liquor stores don’t ask questions. You have to feel the customer out, you have to ask questions, and it’s my job to ask questions and give information to our customers.
What has been the response from the community?
It has been extremely positive. I think Missions Hills was screaming for a nice store that is clean and well organized to compliment the area. There is no store in Mission hills besides Vons that compliments the area. And I feel the majority of business around here need to follow suit and make the Mission Hills/Hillcrest area something to be proud of. This is s a pretty affluent area; owners need to step up their game and start cleaning up their businesses. When customers walk in here, they are just blown away, it’s immaculate – just the way I want it; it’s clean, our floors are mopped, everything is well stocked, it’s well organized, we have a beautiful wine selection, a champagne section, and even a beer cave to be able to cater to every type of customer. And, they have been extremely supportive of the store, very happy to have something like this in the area. There is no difference between this store and a BevMo. And customers are seeing that.
Along with the cleanliness and organization comes the personal attention where Andrew and his staff are able to give customers recommendations and talk to them about the product, and there is knowledge behind it:
The phrase I like to use is: “ownership requirements”. These are the initiatives that an owner must take and it should be a requirement when operating a store like this. Even me as an owner am required to do my job a certain way.
From Liquor Store to Wine & Spirit Shop, is this the way of the future?
The future has evolved from your regular mom and pop stores and it has shifted online, delivery is the future. I don’t consider this a liquor store but rather a “specialty store”. We don’t have a vast amount of candy, gum, and potato chips; this is considered and specialty alcohol store. I believe there will always be a place in society for a store like this. They will never be able to take away all the liquor stores; they’re one of the biggest driving businesses that will never fail during a recession or a pandemic – proven by a recent all-time high for liquor sales. New products came out during the pandemic as people were home doing research and development. Seltzers took off, ready to make cocktails have blown thru the hemisphere, and every company is coming out with a new product. There will always be customers that will want to come into a store that can’t have the same experience online. There is nothing like going to a store and grabbing a bottle or grabbing a six-pack and walking out. Internet shopping is the future but that is an additive to the business. That is not going to change the regular store layout; it is not going to kill it. I think the future is going to be a combination of a little bit of everything but create a niche in a specialty alcohol store.
Being involved in the community that they are in:
I feel that as a business owner who plans on being in the community for a long time, which I do, I should interact with the community and be aware of what’s going on. Know what the neighbors are saying and address any problems we might have because we serve the community. If there is a problem in the community, local business owners should be the ones to help solve that problem – whether it be donating to community that fundraisers or sponsoring events, there are so many ways we can give back. As a business owner the community is putting food on my table every day so there has to be ways I can help repay that. In the Mission Hills/Hillcrest area everyone should be able to contribute to the community. It makes our business better; the neighborhood knows that we are not just here to take money from them but we are also here to support. Being a part of this community is something that I feel very strongly about.
Folks need to stop by and meet Andrew and the staff and see all the selections they have to offer, but also get to know their new neighbor. Hills Wines and Spirits is looking forward to and proud to be serving this community. They are even working on having local delivery available to the area starting in early November via their website.