Question: Where might you find what’s considered one of the largest tequila and mezcal retailers in the U.S. and Mexico?
The answer may surprise you: look to the Midwest.
Specifically, to Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood on the city’s West Side. Here, Moreno’s Liquors has catered to the Latino market for more than 40 years. It currently boasts more than 700 varieties of tequila, and nearly 500 types of mezcal.
The family-owned retailer has become a prominent fixture in the community, as well as a destination for customers in search of distinct products that are not readily available elsewhere. By offering many educational programs and events, constantly bringing in new products and preparing to expand the business to include a speakeasy in the coming months, Moreno’s Liquors remains a powerhouse in this extremely competitive market.
A Unique Concept
Mike Moreno Sr. spent the early part of his life helping out at his father’s grocery store. In 1977, he decided to embark in a new direction and open a liquor store — and thus Moreno’s Liquors was born. Determined to compete with discount retailers and carve a unique niche for himself in the market, Moreno and his wife, Rose, decided to focus their efforts on cultivating the most diverse selection of Mexican spirits in the Chicagoland area.
As the years passed, the store gained popularity and continued expanding its product offerings. Moreno’s Liquors eventually outgrew its original storefront and moved to the retailer’s current 14,000-square-foot location, which features an impressive wall of products devoted solely to tequila and mezcal.
The store now employs a total of 14 staff members. It has a reputation for robust tequila and mezcal offerings, along with a wide selection of fine wine, cognac, whiskey and more. Moreno’s Liquors is also known for the family that steers the business. In addition to Moreno and his wife, the store is co-owned by their son, also named Mike.
Overwhelmingly, the tequila and mezcal categories are the top sellers, accounting for nearly 60% of the store’s total sales combined.
“The store is very well known locally, nationally and across the industry for people looking for tequila and other products you aren’t going to find anywhere else,” the younger Moreno says. “Our business model has shifted over the years as the industry has become more competitive. We try to keep things unique to just our store.”
Moreno’s Liquors offers a large assortment of Central and South American spirits, along with a cultivated Mexican wine collection and a wide variety of craft beers. While the majority of retail space is devoted to beverages, the store also carries a selection of chips, soda, glassware, special Mexican salts for drinks and more.
Limited-edition products and collaborations are another large aspect of the business. This past August, the Morenos traveled to Mexico City and sampled a variety of mezcals for retail. Ultimately they selected Chato, which is derived from agave potatorum and sold exclusively at Moreno’s Liquors.
The Morenos constantly seek out innovative new products to share with their customers. They sample more than 30 new products each week. They narrow their selections down to the highest quality products.
“We work very hard on our palate and try to get as much info on the products as we can,” the younger Moreno says. “I bring in things that I like and that I think taste good. I think our passion behind that is what really influences our customers.”
The elder Moreno agrees. “I’m a certified tequila aficionado, and Mike and Rose are working on it,” he says. “We stress to our employees how important it is to educate the customer on what they’re drinking. We try to steer them to things that are unique.”
During monthly employee meetings, the Morenos focus on a certain category and spend time educating their staff about various types of products. Customers who visit the store usually have opportunity to sample products before making a selection. One of the Morenos’ favorite aspects of their business is having those regular interactions with customers: sharing information about products and helping people narrow down their options to make the selection process less overwhelming (which can easily happen when you’re surrounded by so many products).
Sometimes the Morenos are the ones who learn something new from their customers. Mike Sr. recalls a time when he offered a customer a taste of a new tequila product, and she told him that she detected a hint of coconut.
“I couldn’t believe that because I’d tried that same brand multiple times and never tasted any coconut, but I tasted it again. Sure enough, she was right and there were notes of coconut in there,” he says. “Many of our customers are very knowledgeable about these products as well. They come to our store because they know we offer a quality selection and that we know a lot about the products, but many times they teach us new things as well.”
In addition to offering samples and personalized customer service, Moreno’s Liquors also hosts a wide variety of in-store events geared towards providing customer education. Oftentimes the events will feature guest tequileros and mezcaleros, or showcase different tequila and food pairings.
Brewrachos, an aged beer and whiskey showcase, is an annual event taking place for the fifth time this December. Limited quantities of barrel-aged products are released throughout the day. The event also features tastings, raffles and other activities. People from all around the Chicago area regularly attend this popular event.
Effective marketing has been crucial to the success of Moreno’s Liquors. The retailer’s website was recently overhauled for the first time in six years, in preparation to start online sales. The majority of the businesses’ marketing efforts are online, including the use of Google keywords and social media, and all of the marketing for the company is done in-house. Moreno’s Liquor has a strong presence on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, which have all been key avenues for reaching out to customers.
“I use my name and post my picture on our social channels,” the younger Moreno says. “Customers really appreciate the personal interaction with the owners. It helps us build sales.”
Education also comes into play on social media. The Morenos have developed a video series featuring their family and other experts sampling and discussing various tequilas and craft beers, helping them serve and educate customers beyond the traditional in-store shopping experience.
Social media is a key method of spreading the word about the store’s various philanthropic activities. The Moreno family is dedicated to giving back to the community where they live and work, in order to help the neighborhood continue to thrive, and to give back to people who have been longtime supporters of their business. By partnering with various non-profit and community groups, Moreno’s Liquors regularly sponsors a number of events, including the annual Villapalooza, a Latin music festival held in the Little Village neighborhood.
Looking to the Future
Several major projects are in the works for Moreno’s Liquors. While the retailer has already entered the online sales arena, that process has not been without challenges.
“We’ve wanted to do online sales for a while, but the state of Illinois makes it very challenging,” the younger Moreno says. “Legally, we are unable to ship outside the state, which hurts us a little bit. With our unique selection of products, we think we have a lot to offer out-of-state customers. But we need to work within the legalities, and hopefully the state laws will eventually shift to allow us to expand into a broader online market.”
By far the biggest project currently in the works is the construction underway in the store to build a bar. The Moreno family plans to apply for a dual license and focus on serving unique craft beers and cocktails.
“This will allow us to create a space in Little Village to gather, socialize and experience some really great crafts and cocktails,” the younger Moreno says. “Hopefully it will also help bring in some tourism to the neighborhood as well.”
The bar, which the Moreno’s plan to call Osito’s Tap, will be named for the younger Moreno’s chihuahua, who is a regular fixture of the store. A soft launch of the bar is planned for late winter 2019, with an official grand opening to follow in the spring. This new venture was made possible because the store was named a recipient of the City of Chicago’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant, which supports small-business proposals designed to strengthen the commercial corridors of the city’s South, Southwest and West Sides.
“The small business grant is what really made this possible,” the younger Moreno says. “The city really wants small businesses to step up and enhance their communities. Little Village is a thriving Latino community in Chicago, and my family and I are very excited to contribute to our community in this way.”
All in the Family
Business is thriving and Moreno’s Liquors is moving in several exciting new directions. But does this unique family dynamic ever get in the way of doing good business?
The resounding answer is, absolutely not.
The Moreno family divides up responsibilities at the store. Mike Sr. is the chief executive officer, and Rose manages the bookkeeping and administrative paperwork. As for Mike Jr., he currently serves as vice president and oversees the store’s marketing, along with the craft beer and spirits selections. All three family members spend a lot of time on the store floor interacting with customers, sharing their knowledge and giving people one-on-one time with the store owners, which the Morenos believe leads to a positive and authentic experience for their guests.
The younger Moreno recalls how he grew up helping out around the store, and always knew that he would eventually contribute to the business on a full-time basis.
“I’ve been training to take over the store my whole life,” he says. “I wanted to get the most well-rounded understanding of the industry as I could. Before coming to work here full-time, I worked for Wirtz Beverage, I got a degree in business management and entrepreneurial studies from DePaul University, and I got experience working in the areas of event management, website design and marketing. This is what I always knew I would do, and I came into this role at a young age, but I’ve spent my entire life preparing for it.”
Parents and son working alongside each other on a daily basis hasn’t resulted in a stressful work atmosphere. On the contrary, it’s the Moreno’s collective passion for their business, the industry and the products that make the store such a unique destination.
“Passion and quality are by far the two most important things in this business,” the elder Moreno says. “Not just in this business, either. They’re the two most important characteristics of any business in any industry in this country. We are constantly tapping into the passion we have for this business to bring in the best possible products and create a great experience for our customers.”