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Bottle Barn being sold to Marin investor

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When Bill Traverso needs to buy some Italian wine for his tasting class at Santa Rosa Junior College, he has relied on Bottle Barn and its knowledgeable wine buyer, Ben Pearson, to help him find bottles from various regions.

“You get that type of personal service there,” said Traverso, whose family owned a gourmet food and wine store before it closed in 2012. “They do a good job of keeping up with consumer trends.”

A collective fear, however, went up among customers when they spotted a notice on the door announcing that longtime owners Bruce and Loretta Emmons are selling the Santa Rosa liquor store they bought nearly 25 years ago. Sajive Jain of Tiburon will take over the business next month.

But those fans can breathe a little easier — decant, if you will — because no significant changes are planned and Bottle Barn’s 14 employees are staying on through the transition to the new owner.

“There will be no personnel changes. Everyone was leery. But they met him now . . . and they all plan to stay,” Bruce Emmons noted in an interview.

Though it is housed in a 12,000-square-foot warehouse with a decor that is more Soviet than swank, “The Barn” has become a fixture among North Coast wine aficionados like Traverso and those who can’t tell the difference between a pinot grigio and a pinot gris.

And it has done so as the David against Goliath with competitors such as Costco, Trader Joe’s, BevMo, Whole Foods Market and Oliver’s Markets in a cutthroat retail marketplace with slim profit margins.

The formula for Bottle Barn’s success has been pretty simple, Emmons said. Treat your employees well. They are among the most knowledgeable in the local area when it comes to alcoholic beverages, a hard task given it has roughly 10,000 bottles of wine, spirits and beer on the shelves.

“He (Bruce) told me once, ‘You get the employees you deserve.’ And he’s got some good employees,” said general manager Jason Schneider, who has been with the store since 1997. “That doesn’t happen because the place is terrible.”

The Emmonses have been rewarded with low turnover. They pay their employees well above minimum wage (some earn six-figure salaries when bonuses are applied), offer a 3 percent employer match on its 401(k) plan as well as fully paid medical insurance for its employees.

“I have so many people who when I tell them what I do, they say, ‘I love your store. Your employees are so friendly.’ They are friendly because they are not stressed by me,” Emmons said.

The philosophy is much more like Costco than Wal-Mart, even though it does about $10 million in annual sales, which pale in comparison to its competitors.

“I think a lot of employers are short-sighted. We’re all interested in making money on our products. If that’s the only thing you are thinking about and want to pay your employees the smallest amount you can get away with, which is true with a lot of employers . . . short run, that’s good for you. In the long run, I don’t think it is,” he said.

And those employees have performed well. “Even though I pay well, they have to be productive. The store has to be productive,” he said.

They also have to perform at a high level. Some of its customers are as knowledgeable as staff, given many work in the wine industry. “We have customers who don’t only want a recommendation, they want to know what clone this pinot is,” Emmons noted. “You don’t get that in L.A.”

Besides its employees, the store also has remained competitive in pricing with the big-box retailers, who are able to get discounts because they buy in large quantities. While some of his wines can be priced a little higher than Costco, Emmons said he has more variety and he can beat it on certain items, such as being 50 cents cheaper on Smirnoff vodka by strategically buying in bulk. He takes pride as he says his prices are typically less than BevMo

Emmons noted that not all of his business plans have worked out, such as a Healdsburg wine bar that failed to take hold. “For them, a local wine is within five miles of Healdsburg,” he said. In addition, he was initially rebuffed when he sought to offer a tasting room at his Santa Rosa store, but never followed up years later to see if the city would be more amenable.

He also thought of expanding to another location, such as Marin County, once he paid off all of his business debt in 2000. But by then he was almost 60 years old and the thought of undertaking another endeavor with his wife did not hold enough sway. Those plans may be more favorable to the new owner, he noted

The couple plan to travel more in retirement, especially deserved given they did not take a day off during the first 10 years of operating the business.

His advice to the new owner has been simple: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com.

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