Stop in for a tasting or a special bottle at In Fine Spirits, located in the bustling neighborhood of Andersonville in Chicago, and you might think owner Jarran Conger was the local mayor. In Fine Spirits has been Andersonville’s wine, beer, and spirits source for thirteen years, and the shop’s devoted regulars––who often bring friends from out of town, especially to the popular weekly tastings––are a testament to the great selection and thoughtful, individually tailored service. In an era when retail is often thought to be a challenging field in the beverage business, those of us who happen to love being in these particular trenches can learn a lot from the personal touch at places like IFS. I caught up with Jarran Conger (full disclosure: my former boss) to chat about his path to wine shop ownership and the wisdom of The Big Lebowski.
How did you get into wine?
After college, I did what most theater grads do: grab a job serving tables. I became a banquet captain, and after enough time serving well-done burgers and Diet Cokes, I thought, there’s gotta be something else out there. I didn’t want to go into restaurant management; it wasn’t me at that point in time. Within the industry, you learn to put your ear to the ground, and I found a guy who used to work with my wife at Weber Grill, Kyle McHugh, who was opening up his own wine shop. He was a smart dude, knew a little about everything, and he taught me, and I began to really focus on that liquid side of life.
Getting into the [booze] world, you’re going to be dissecting everything that goes into your mouth. For many people, liquid gets ruined at that point because you’ll dissect everything, but it’s also a way to find the great gems that are out there, too. Kyle put that fire under me, and I became a sommelier. I took my next level test to become certified, and Chicago mixology was getting its groove on at the time, too, so I really got into mixology as well. At that point it was like six degrees of separation––you start learning from more people as you go.
What are some retail challenges you didn’t expect going in?
We have in our head 50 different meals at any given time that people want us to pair wine with. I think it all boils down to life’s aspirations: good food, good drink, good conversation. That kind of sold me on everything and I think trying to focus on that, loving that, is the key. The administrative side, the behind-the-scenes stuff, can get you bogged down and once you start getting paid for something you love, that’s when the realization hits: you’re really in this for something you love, but you also have to make money, and you want to help others as well. You can’t do it alone, and the administrative side requires delegating.
What is the most rewarding part?
Gaining loyalty. That trust factor, that conversation, that relationship. I have customers who move away or have their first child and move to the suburbs, and they come back and visit. They pop in and grab a few bottles of wine, and they bring their kids, and you have these relationships that keep our shop going. You’re really listening to the neighborhood. Yeah, it’s wine and booze, but we’re also trying to enhance the experience. It’s like the line in The Big Lebowski: “Their life is in your hands, dude.”
What kind of person should own a wine shop?
An adaptable person, because you need to be able to do that to be successful. You can have a vision of how you think it’s going to go and try to steer things down that path, but circumstances raise their ugly heads, you have to put fires out, and that may bring light to more urgent needs. You have to focus and learn your lessons and keep going forward toward where you want to be at the end. You have to be able to do that and let go of control sometimes, and if you are trying to focus on one aspect of your business hopefully you have other things in place that will kind of take care of themselves, and you can trust that. It’s an ebb and flow.
Any other advice for those looking to own their own shop?
Business courses can be beneficial: there are things business training would help you to look out for. That also depends on your bankroll; if cash flow is good and you can afford to make mistakes, great. If not, maybe it’s better to have some business education in your pocket.
Ultimately, you have to be realistic with yourself. What is happening? What is the goal? What’s the dream––own a shop and travel the world, right? But be honest about how you’re going to get there: are your choices now going to lead to that? Are you furthering your educational career? You can get to a point where you have so much education and knowledge that people just want to throw money at you. They want you.
Julia Burke is a wine educator, wine industry professional, and WSET Diploma student currently based in Willamette Valley, Oregon. Links to her work can be found on her website, Stellenbauchery.com. Headshot by Amy Davis Roth.