Steve Siciliano: Behind the Persona
For Steve Siciliano, proprietor of Siciliano’s Market (perhaps West Michigan’s most well-respected bottle shop and homebrewing supply store), admitting failure acknowledges how seriously close he was to giving up—and how thankful he is that he didn’t. Siciliano, who many would consider partly responsible for laying the foundation of what would become known as Beer City USA, endured five years of dark days before craft beer saved his store, and maybe his life.
MittenBrew: Your blog tells a brief story about your store’s history, but why pivot into the realm of convenience stores in the first place?
Steve Siciliano: I was the regional manager for a marketing company in the late ‘70s. I hated the work, the travel, and had young sons at home, so I took on franchise ownership of a 7-Eleven. It ended up not being an easy business to run, but it taught me about the business of retail and, more significantly, the importance of being a part of a community.
MB: How so?
SS: Back then, 7-Eleven was different than the way we think about them today. They operated more like a mom and pop store. They really stressed the value of community, and backed it up with charitable giving. Everything started by making customer service the priority. I found that I really liked the interaction with the customers, but I was kind of a quiet fella, believe it or not. I’m really quite reticent for the most part.
MB: That doesn’t sound like someone who’d end up having an affinity for providing exemplary customer service.
SS: It sounds weird, but I developed somewhat of a stage persona, so to speak.
MB: Something you turned on and off?
SS: I’m not a loquacious type of guy, so it was a way for me to connect with the customers and have some fun with them at the same time. [With a quick, soft chuckle under his breath seemingly surprised by the popularity of his accidental alter ego…] And, they liked it! If they came in and I didn’t throw an innocent, verbal jab at them or literally throw a donut at them playfully on their way out of the store, they thought something was wrong with me.
MB: After you got good at throwing donuts, you left 7-Eleven to buy a different store in Creston Heights. What were you hoping to achieve differently?
SS: In the eight years I owned the second store, I felt like I was able to really engage with and impact the community in a positive way, especially with the Scholar Dollars program. Unfortunately, the neighborhood’s socioeconomic status at that time didn’t lend itself well to the direction I was interested in going. We did okay with the working crowd in the morning and around lunchtime, but business would go quiet after dark. I was getting into wine around then, and knew that I’d have to consider a different location if I was going to be able to give that a shot on the shelves. Then I bought this store.
MB: What was this place like when you bought it?
SS: As soon as you walked in, you were hit with porn magazines. I mean, the guy had a shit ton of pornography. And that’s pretty much all he was selling—porn and cheap booze…and maybe a bag of stale chips. It was bad. But when I walked in, I’m thinking, “I know how to run a store, I know what I’m doing. I’ll come in here, remodel it, stock it up, and have plenty of space for wine, too.” I envisioned a really nice convenience store—and guest experience. So, I put in soda fountains, coffee, everything I thought I needed. But nothing—I was up against the reputation of the previous management. It was crickets for five years. It was tough, really tough. People just did not come in here. Nothing worked.
MB: I read in another interview that you said you “pretty much died here” during that time. Is that true? Did you ever want to throw in the towel?
SS: It was probably the worst time of my life, really. Just five years of me sitting around an empty store. It was tough. I mean, I slipped into a depression. I never failed at anything in my life, and I was failing. To be honest with you, there were times when I’d go in the back room and cry. I was exhausted—mentally, physically.
MB: Did it stress family life at home?
SS: Yes, yeah… There’d be nights where I’d just go home, sit in the dark, and stare at the wall.
MB: What turned it around?
SS: Around the time I bought this building in ‘93, craft beer was just starting to gain interest. I started hearing whispers about it from random customers in the late ‘90s, and I listened to them. I remember this very distinctly: I brought in a case of Bell’s, was working out the price for a six-pack, and thinking to myself, “There is no way this is ever going to sell.” I mean, I couldn’t see people buying it—paying that much for a six-pack?! So, I thought, “What if I just price them out and sold the bottles as singles?”
MB: So, wait. You’ve been pricing beer as singles since the late ‘90s?
SS: Yep. Everything that came in, I priced out as singles. And it worked.
MB: Simple, but genius.
SS: It just snowballed from there. As customers would recommend that I try to get this beer, that beer, those imports, I did. If anyone ever asked if I could get my hands on a certain beer for them, I would. At that time, I would do anything to earn a customer.
MB: Is that what led you to expand into to homebrewing supplies?
SS: Tom Buchanan, head brewer at Ludington Bay Brewery, used to live in the neighborhood. He was a customer, and really good homebrewer. He said I should consider selling homebrewing supplies, but I knew nothing about it. I did a little research, found a local distributor, GW Kent, asked for a catalog, and ordered a bunch of stuff I didn’t know anything about. I was scared shitless because I didn’t have the money to spend on it, but it drew people in. It probably took another three to four years before we started making money, but I was getting new and returning faces through the door, and it was fun again.
MB: How much lighter was the weight on your shoulders?
SS: Making money is a great antidepressant. For so long, the store was this big, heavy airplane slowly… taking… off… It took a long time to gain altitude, but we finally did.
MB: How close were you to running out of runway? Why didn’t you quit?
SS: [Lights his pipe, takes an intentional, steady drag, exhales calmly, and introduces us to his wife, Barb, who has just joined us to listen in…] It’s interesting that you ask that. Barb and I met in ‘98, at the tail end of those dark first five years here at the store. From the very beginning of our relationship, she’s been very supportive, very involved, and with me every step of the way. But before we met, I actually tried to sell the store.
I called a good friend of mine—the same commercial real estate guy who helped me get the Creston store, who helped me buy this store, and I said to him, “Listen, I can’t do this anymore. It’s killing me. You gotta help me sell this place.” So we listed it. We had some lookers, but it didn’t sell. He couldn’t figure out why. And you know what? It was the fucking universe telling me, “You stick this out.” I really think it was something metaphysical, something bigger than me telling me, “No. You stick this out.” Now, I say to myself, “Thank God I didn’t sell.”
MB: You couldn’t ditch the store. The only thing you had left was the hope that customers would eventually walk through the door. Once they did and continued to return, how did you apply your philosophy of what you learned about community and customer service to keep the store above water?
SS: I had the idea to throw a party for homebrewers. We held it at St. Ladislaus Aid Society, an old Polish hall. They could bring their beer, we’d feed ‘em (Barb and her friend Connie made ribs in Connie’s kitchen) and we were going to play trivia. I found this old silver cup at an antique store, and we called it The Siciliano’s Cup, and we’d award it to the homebrewing team with the highest trivia score—not the best BJCP-judged beer, like it is now. Now, in its 15th year, it’s revered like the Stanley Cup. Since, we’ve parlayed that into throwing our own Big Brew Day at Trailpoint Brewing Company to celebrate National Homebrew Day, which happens annually on the first Saturday in May.
MB: I get the sense that your customers are more important to you than just a cash transaction.
SS: I’ve met SO many wonderful people over the years, especially here. Like-minded people who love good things—good beer, spirits, wine, cigars. I’ve developed a lot of really close friendships. It’s one of the many cool things about running a store like this. We’ve always considered ourselves to be a mom and pop place, and I like that. My wife, Barb, is a face of Siciliano’s, too, and our employees are an extension of us—they’re so appreciated. We’ve just tried to create an atmosphere with a tangible personal touch.
MB: Do you consider Siciliano’s a contributing factor to Grand Rapids being known as Beer City USA?
SS: I know so many professional brewers now because they started out being homebrewers. I feel pretty proud of the fact that many of them got their start in our store. We’re like a farm team of local brewers. [He affectionately starts name-dropping…] Jacob Derylo, from Vivant, used to work here. Matt Blodgett from Founders. Gary Evans and Mark Lacopelli from Trail Point. The guys from Mitten Brewing. Seth Rivard from Rockford Brewing. The guys from Pigeon Hill and Unruly in Muskegon. The guys from Odd Side and Grand Armory in Grand Haven. Elk Brewing. Tom Payne, who just opened Two Guys [and was shopping for supplies during this interview]. I mean, I can keep going…
MB: The Siciliano’s jumbo jet has been in the air, turbulence-free, for a while. You’ve got a successful annual homebrewing competition, a complementary, impressively-attended National Homebrew Day party, a résumé of helping influence a who’s who in the local brewing scene, and you just recently announced your “semi-retirement”. Why now?
SS: My age. My wife. [Laughing…] I’ve been slowing down for a couple years now. Don’t get me wrong, if they need help behind the counter, I’ll jump behind there. I’ll help carry a customer’s order out to their car, but I’ve been concentrating more on the marketing end of the business. Writing’s always been in my blood—I’ve got a degree in journalism. I’ve self-published a novel. It’s my creative outlet, so I love writing our blog. But Barb’s like, “What are you gonna do, keep working for the rest of your life?! I want to go travel.” So, me being a smart man, I started listening to her.
MB: Are you going out kicking and screaming?
SS: When you’ve spent half your life building something, it’s hard to walk away from it. You know, I got in this morning at nine o’clock, and said, “I like this.” We’ve been traveling a lot more lately. And, you know what, I’ve kinda liked that, too. I’ve been grooming the management team for about a year, and I trust them. So am I going kicking and screaming? Yeah, maybe I was at first, but they’ve got the program dialed in now. So much, in fact, that most of the time they don’t even put me on the schedule. [He shows the schedule as proof.] It’s a coup! [Laughing.]
MB: So when you finally clock out for the last time…
SS: [He cuts me off…] I don’t think I’ll clock out. [Barb adds, “I don’t think he will either.”] I’ll clock out when I’m dead.
MB: Fair enough. [We all pause in silence…]
MB: Do you have a vision for how you’d like to see the store once you are gone? Is there an heir to the throne?
SS: Not yet, but I hope it stays. Once I’m dead and gone, I hope that… I hope they find a way to keep this thing going, and under the same name. That’d mean a lot to me.
MB: If this store with your name on it is your legacy, what does your headstone stay?
SS: Let’s put it this way. At my funeral service, which won’t be open casket because I’ll be ashes, I want the book I wrote, the black belt I earned, my fly fishing rod, and a picture of Siciliano’s Market there. And I want Tom Petty’s “Room At The Top” playing on a loop.
MB: When you’re looking down from the top of the world, what drink will be in your hand?
SS: Maybe a Manhattan (with a good bourbon, good sweet vermouth, and a Luxardo cherry). Maybe a nice glass of wine, or an authentic Belgian beer. And a good cigar. Or my pipe.
MB: Well, Steve. We hope you don’t see that day for a long time, but when you do we think that sounds like a good way to go out.