FREEPORT — Bow Street Market prides itself on its variety, selling liquors ranging from Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy to the rare $2,000 bottle of Louis VIII cognac to the products of local distillers such as Cold River and Sweetgrass Farms.
This variety has helped Bow Street, nestled in a barn-shaped building in Freeport, become an unassuming giant in the state liquor industry. The 15,000-square-foot store is the largest seller of liquor in Maine, moving 53,559 cases last year. Hannaford Bros. and Shaw’s supermarket chains sell more liquor throughout all their locations, but Bow Street has the highest volume for an individual site, according to state records.
The next largest competitor, RSVP in Portland, sold 41,382 cases last year. RSVP did not return multiple calls seeking comment.
Bow Street is almost shy about the success of its liquor operations, and likes to emphasize its butcher shop that features local products, organic fruits and vegetables and the neighborhood flavor of its intimate store.
Yet despite the low profile the market likes to cultivate, it plans to make its voice heard loudly this year through its trade group – the Maine Grocers Association – about the upcoming solicitation of bids for a new state liquor contract.
Retailers like Bow Street want whoever gets the exclusive right to wholesale alcohol to be a good partner – and to do something about the wide gap between Maine and New Hampshire liquor prices. The gap undermines the profitability and sales of alcohol in Maine.
Bow Street owner Adam Nappi said his store’s small-town flavor is an antidote to the impersonal, distant interactions that can characterize modern life.
“In the world of Facebook and social media, we have lost some of that feeling of having a place for neighbors to interact – to have a neighborhood meeting spot,” he said. “This allows a chance to get some of that back.”
Kam Anderson, a customer for 17 years, appreciates that. “It’s local,” he said. “It’s community. It’s small and cozy.”
Josh Rice of Durham said Bow Street is just small enough to be manageable and lend a neighborhood feel.
“There are things closer, but this place has an amazing meat section that you just can’t compare. And the fresh produce is a draw,” said Rice. “They also have the best liquor selection I’ve seen anywhere around. There’s Bootleggers in Brunswick. But they have things here that you can’t get anywhere else – like applejack whiskey, which is really smooth and really good in hot apple cider.”
Although Bow Street does sell Maine’s perennial best-selling liquor, Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy (a 1.75-liter bottle goes for $19.99), it’s not the store’s top item. A pricier, 1-liter bottle of Grey Goose Vodka for $35.99 is Bow Street’s best-seller, followed by the dark liquors and the gins, said Paula Truman, Bow Street’s wine and spirits manager.
Bow Street, a second-generation family-owned business, is more than a traditional retailer. It’s also a reseller that provides liquor to hundreds of bars and restaurants throughout Maine, running from Kittery to Bangor, and as far west as Bethel and east to Rockland. Its biggest concentration of customers is in Portland, Nappi said.
Bow Street declined to disclose its liquor revenues, but said the majority of its spirits sales come from bar and restaurant accounts.
Like all Maine retailers and resellers, Bow Street gets its liquor at prices set by the state. Since it can’t adjust pricing to attract customers, it has to be creative in offering unique products to draw customer traffic.
It has created a Maine-made spirits section, as well as a climate-controlled wine cellar, and features a broad assortment of liquors extending across all price ranges.
“It’s more convenient to go to Shaw’s or Hannaford, but here it’s a little more curated. They know more about what they’re recommending,” said Keith Tiszenkel of Freeport. “You feel a little overwhelmed in a big-box store. This is a more gourmet experience.”
The liquor itself comes through Maine Beverage Co., the company that won a 10-year contract in 2004 to run the state liquor business. Pine State Trading Co. handles the distribution, with all the liquor in the state funneling through a warehouse in Augusta. So, even if Bow Street wants to buy a Cold River Vodka from Maine Distilleries in Freeport or New England Distilling’s Eight Bells Rum in Portland, the bottles first go to Augusta before hitting Bow Street’s shelves in Freeport.
Since bars and restaurants pay the same price for liquor as consumers do when they buy their supplies, Bow Street has to offer more to make itself unique to its corporate customers.
“We’re on the quest for differentiation,” Nappi said. “We can’t compete on price, so we have to bring different things to the table.”
Bow Street does more than merely resell the liquor to bars and restaurants – it also can handle the administration of their liquor management systems for no fee. It essentially takes the burden of ordering and managing the liquor stock off clients – which gives the clients some savings and fewer headaches – to ensure it has a steady stream of loyal customers.
Once restaurants and bars get used to having Bow Street manage their liquor ordering and processing, they are less likely to jump to another reseller. Bow Street also works hard to keep costs as low as possible for corporate customers.
“We have to reduce costs – different packaging sizes, different product mix, different brands in the well,” said Dean Nowell, Bow Street’s operations manager.
For its retail customers, Bow Street store is known for being able to cater to milestone moments in life, like a special anniversary or 50th birthday or a huge win at work, Nappi said. The store once had a special order for a $2,000 bottle of Louis VIII cognac. It was able to get the bottle for the customer the next day.
“For the most part this is a commodity business. We differentiate ourselves by being locally owned, made from scratch, fresh, and the money stays in Maine,” Nowell said.
“What is going to make us unique? Wine and spirits. We’re very very proud of it,” Nappi said.
In the store’s climate-controlled wine cellar, the best sellers are $24.99 to $42.99 bottles of wine, said Truman.
“There are $400 bottles or $15 bottles that would knock your socks off,” said Truman.
Statewide, liquor sales in Maine spike during the August summer tourism surge and around the holidays in December and Bow Street sees similar trends at its store. Bow Street said it benefits from tourism traffic in Freeport and word-of-mouth recommendations from customers drawn to its local products.
“We want to capitalize on the trend of more local offerings. Customers recognize the benefits of local – the money stays in the state, supports local jobs and shows some pride in Maine,” said operations manager Nowell. “It’s an expansion of our thinking away from a commodity base.”
Bow Street said it also benefits when customers learn more about liquor and develop a more discerning palate – and perhaps spend a little more money on specialty products. The market has worked with restaurants, such as King Eider’s Pub in Damariscotta, to hold whiskey tastings as a way to branch out in the community, educate customers and have some fun.
“One fun part was that it was a lot of women – and you don’t necessarily think of women as whiskey drinkers. But they wanted to know all about it, what made each one different or better than the other,” said Truman. “Men tend to be loyal to one brand, but the women were there to learn and try something new. It’s events like these that can help differentiate ourselves.”
Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: