On June 1, when state liquor stores reopen under private ownership, a new cooperative of locally owned stores selling Washington-produced booze will emerge to compete with the Kirkland-brand-pushing Costcos and big-box Walmarts.
Its name: Jus Liquor.
The business is the brainchild of 51-year-old Jasmel Sangha, an Olympia businessman who succeeded in mobilizing the Indian community to submit roughly 80 of the 121 winning bids for one or more of the state's 167 liquor stores.
The auction, which raised more than $31 million for state coffers, was a byproduct of last November's Costco-backed Initiative 1183, which privatized state liquor sales.
Now many of these new business owners are relying on Sangha's vision to stock their stores with what the big-box chains will undoubtedly lack—homegrown liquors.
"We don't want to go outside of the state," Sangha says. "Our model is to empower our local craft distillers and craft brewers, to create a distinct difference from the mass retailers."
Sangha, who himself is the new owner of an Olympic Peninsula liquor store, cut his teeth in the business by owning and managing liquor stores in Massachusetts and California before moving to Washington. He said he was compelled to organize the Indian community to bid on stores because many took financial hits in 2010 when STITA taxis lost their 20-year exclusive contract to pick up people from Sea-Tac Airport.
Still, not everyone is happy with the new businesses—or their owners. "I cannot believe as a hard working born & raised American, that I am excluded from this program," writes Allison Helfen, owner of Renton's the Wine Alley, in a furious letter to state officials that seems, at the very least, outrageously butt-hurt. "Over 90 percent of [winning bidders] are from India and Korea. Most of these winning bidders currently own convenient [sic] stores and now they can convert our state liquor stores into convenience stores. All the while, high-end boutique stores like mine are excluded. This is unconstitutional!"
"This was a public auction," responds Pat McLaughlin, the business enterprise director for the Washington State Liquor Control Board.