It was the late 1960s. Tom Hoffmann and his brother, Steve, had recently completed their studies at Southern Illinois University.
“What are you going to do now?” Tom remembers asking his brother.
With a desire to remain in Carbondale, Steve suggested they open a bar together. After scouting out potential locations and considering possibilities, Steve had another idea.
“I think the chances of doing well are better if we open up a package liquor store,” Steve told his brother.
Knowing that the would need a city license, the pair began gathering documents and their case. Tom remembers that it had been nearly two decades since a new package liquor license had been awarded.
“We went to the City Council,” he said. “They wanted you to prove you could do it, so we bought new suits and went in with our plans, showing them that we had the knowledge and the finances to make it."
There was a lot riding on the application.
“Everything we owned, we put up as collateral for a loan,” Tom’s wife, Jan, said. “So if it didn’t work, we were going to be in trouble.”
They got the license, and in September 1968, the brothers opened a package liquor store. Jan’s fears were put to ease as it did work. Today, the Hoffmanns are celebrating 50 years and two generations in the business.
Tom eventually purchased his brother’s shares of the business. Tom and Jan, along with children, Tom II and Wendy, are partners in five local package liquor stores: Warehouse Liquor Mart and ABC Liquor Mart in Carbondale, Southern Illinois Liquor Mart in Murphysboro, Westmore Liquor Mart in Marion and Plaza Liquor Mart in Mount Vernon.
Tom II and Wendy oversee day-to-day operations.
Tom credits the brothers’ approach as a key to their success. “We were young enough to take chances and that made all of the difference."
Jan also credits a strong work ethic and says it’s something that the couple has tried to pass along to their children who grew up in the business.
“We were both raised learning to go to school, go to work, do your job and listen to your parents,” Jan said. “So when we started — at ages 23 and 25, we probably were more mature than many others our age. The kids grew up the same way. They swept the parking lot, they learned to clean the bathrooms. They learned from the bottom up.”
Tom said competition in the industry has always been tough.
“We’ve always had to take chances,” he said. “We’ve had to take risks when we’ve moved a store or when we’ve purchased new equipment. We’ve had to do it to stay competitive.”
The Hoffmanns said that through five decades, there have been lots of changes and challenges in the package liquor business, including an increase in the number of package liquor licenses in the communities they serve.
“You’ve got the same amount of people buying the same amount, so it’s spread out more,” Wendy said. “Plus you have to compete with the box stores that sell clothing and other things who can sell package liquor as a loss-leader below cost. We have package liquor and that’s it. It’s tough to compete.”
The answer, Wendy said, is customer service and staying ahead of trends in alcohol consumption.
“For a while, flavored vodkas was the big thing, but right now it’s bourbons. It changes all of the time,” she said.
Wendy adds that the family keeps an eye on trends through industry-wide publications and working closely with wholesalers, always keeping customers in mind.
“The consumer is the ultimate person,” Tom said, mentioning regular wine tasting events and a strong social media presence as ways to connect with and serve customers. “We’ve almost become more of a boutique and a one-stop location, offering things like charcoal. We’re trying to give our customers what they want.”