Written by Emily Ballard | Photos by Todd Bush
As the craft beer market explodes across Western North Carolina, as well as across the country, two longtime friends and business partners reap the benefits of a business that they bought before beer and wine were such hot commodities.
[dropcap]J[/dropcap]eff Collins and Gregg Parsons are the owners of Peabody’s Wine and Beer Merchants, a specialty shop set in the beautiful mountain town of Boone, North Carolina. As you drive into town, you are first met by a row of chain restaurants, hotels, and banks, but tucked in between these structures you’ll quickly recognize the purple and white Peabody’s sign, one of the only independently owned stores on this busy strip. Starting early in the morning their parking lot begins to fill with customers, a testament to a successful business that has been serving and supporting the community since 1978.
Jeff and Gregg casually, yet attentively, greet customers as soon as they enter the door. Many are addressed by their first name, obviously regulars to the establishment. Newcomers are instantly offered assistance, a much appreciated gesture as you enter a sea of bottles that reach from floor to ceiling and to the deep recesses of the store. Under the register is a display case of cigars, and behind the counter are a row of taps and local brews at the growler station and a line of wine bottles open for tasting. There are specialty food items and gourmet chocolates. Each item in the store has been handpicked by the owners and selected for its quality. Each nook and cranny is filled with something interesting and delectable. Jeff and Gregg pride themselves on genuine customer service and community enrichment, but their first business venture together looked far different than the pretty labels and tasty assortment that they boast today.
The Trash Niche
The two co-owners began working together in 1991 at a seafood and produce market, a wholesaler that delivered to restaurants. At this point Jeff was 23 and Gregg was 34. Both employees felt that the management was lacking and that there was room for much improvement in the running of the business. They began hashing out ideas and came up with a plan to start a trash recycling company. With the idea fresh in their mind they put in their notice at the market and were suddenly tasked with three weeks to get up and running. They were starting completely from scratch.
“We didn’t have a truck, we didn’t have anything other than a flier. We would go door to door and started signing people up.”
People began enlisting their services for trash pickup, and the week before their first scheduled retrieval they found a truck, borrowed $5,000 total from their respective families, and simply started their business.
Jeff had a business degree and Gregg was a returning student at that time with plenty of retail experience. They had worked together for a year and a half at their old job at this point and had a good understanding of how to run a business, as well as how not to run a business. At the seafood and produce market, they had worked throughout the twisting and quirky high-country road system, and knew how to plan their route. They also had a work ethic unmatched by most, and weren’t afraid to get dirty, quite literally.
What they found was that the garbage industry was full of opportunity, and business was good. They created a niche in the community for a much needed service that wasn’t being addressed by the big corporate trash company.
“There was nobody at the time you could call commercially and say, ‘I’m moving, come clean out my basement’, or ‘Come get my dead freezer’, or ‘A tree fell in my yard, come get it.’ If it had to do with coming to get it and taking it away, we did it,” says Gregg.
“We did anything,” they say in perfect unison, as two seasoned business partners with decades of stories to tell.
Their business was called County Disposal, and they provided pick up services to private neighborhoods, country clubs, individual businesses, and individual households. They became a full service company. They attribute their success to their ability to work on the fly, make their own decisions, and consistently be proactive, qualities that they felt the corporate giants just didn’t offer.
Another service that the existing trash company wasn’t offering was recycling. Their company was the first to commercially recycle anything in the town of Boone, and they were instrumental in helping to implement parts of the community’s recycling plan. They were also the first to offer various sizes of construction dumpsters, a service not previously available for businesses.
Although they admit that the first few years in this new business were lean, they were starting to see real growth and opportunity. They had leased the laundry facility at Jeff’s apartment building for office space. At the time there were no cell phones and Jeff would venture twice a day down to a local wine and beer shop run by a friend to use his phone and check their messages. The store was called Peabody’s and it was two doors down from where they kept their trucks.
Always the entrepreneur, in 1996 Jeff became involved in the cigar business with his friend and owner of Peabody’s. In 1997 this friends’ personal life dictated that he relocate, and so Jeff and Gregg seized the opportunity to buy the business. Now the energetic duo not only owned a thriving trash business but also a local wine and beer store. This didn’t deter or slow them down.
“We would get up at four in the morning and work the trash business and then come work Peabody’s. We worked 16 to 18 hour days for years,” Gregg recalls.
As if they didn’t have enough on their plate, in 2000 they took over a large building that had been used by a big paving contractor and started the only diesel mechanic shop in the area at that time. This business was born more or less out of a necessity for their growing recycling and trash operation and the work they needed on their own trucks, but once they had all of their trucks in working order they opened the business to the public. The space was called Mountain Diesel, and it gave them room to store both their equipment and the hundreds of dumpsters they used.
“That was a really great addition to our business. It made our lives much easier because now we didn’t have down time, we had backup equipment. You have to pick up trash. It can’t stay there no matter what,” says Jeff.
Both men recall the many times that they spent standing in dumpsters, emptying the trash into a four wheel drive truck, because the bigger trucks were unable to get to them because of the commonly uncooperative mountain weather.
“When it snows two or three feet, you can’t get the trucks in. The dumpsters would be full.[quote float=”right”]And that’s why a lot of the town really loved us, because we would actually go crawl into the dumpsters with gloves and boots and shovel that stuff out into a truck. We never left people hanging. We had a really good reputation and it worked out great,” Gregg remembers. [/quote]
What started as a two man operation with one truck and a hopeful idea had now escalated into a full-fledged successful and continually growing business. In ten years’ time they had 19 trucks and a community that embraced and appreciated their services. The business was such a success in fact that the big corporate company was seeing a hit in their profits. Being in competition was not working for them and they came to Jeff and Gregg with an offer that they just couldn’t refuse on the garbage business. The men sold it and decided to put their full focus on running Peabody’s.
One of the projects they had worked on in the trash business was cleaning up an old pantry convenience store when it went out of business. They saw this as a great opportunity to move Peabody’s from its small 700 to 800-square-foot location in a strip mall with poor visibility, to a space almost three times the size and, in their eyes, a superbly better location. They were so certain that this was the right place for them that they paid two leases for a year just to acquire the more desirable spot.
They tried for years to actually purchase the property and the building. The landlord let them buy the adjacent lot, which they eventually sold to a Marriott hotel, the current inhabitant. And after many years they were able to buy the building and the acre and half they wanted. They finally had the visibility and the parking that they knew they needed for the business to thrive.
So the question remained: Would a seemingly long leap from the trash business to the wine and beer business prove to be as lucrative and satisfying for these two go-getters?
The answer is simply: yes. Call it luck or strategic planning, Jeff and Gregg have effectively pinpointed profitable businesses and trades in the area at precisely the right moment.
“When we first owned it, if you had 100 beers, you had everything. But now we have 1500 beers in there,” says Jeff.
This is in large part due to a movement ten years ago led by a group that was fed up with a 6% ABV restriction on all beers sold and brewed within North Carolina. The group termed the initiative “Pop the Cap”, and once the cap was lifted in 2005, the industry forever changed in this area. Peabody’s was ready for the expansion that inevitably happened after the law passed.
“We have always tried to be proactive instead of reactive. It changed a lot of things. Breweries started popping up and we were able to buy beers from Iowa and Colorado and everywhere. And as a natural progression to that, because the alcohol wasn’t so limited it really gave birth to the craft brew not only here in North Carolina but everywhere,” says Gregg.
Jeff explains that this really opened the floodgate for beer aficionados and enthusiasts. They were able to expand their inventory to include a range of beer types and varieties from around the world that were unavailable to them previously due to the alcohol restriction.
Just as they had entered the trash business as Boone started booming and needed their services, they were able to purchase Peabody’s before the real beer craze started. They found themselves proprietors of a solid company in an industry that was experiencing exponential growth and interest.
They now have a staff of nine employees, some of which have been there over a decade. Just like they pick the goods that they sell based on quality, so also do they use this method for those that they hire. They require that they know and are passionate about the products, and they affectionately call them their career beer and wine geeks. There is a sense of camaraderie in the store, with some friendly jabs and humor that only close colleagues would tolerate. They are certainly a family that works hard, and most likely plays hard.
Always looking for new opportunities, Jeff and Gregg’s newest venture is a sister store in downtown Boone called Benchmark Provisions, selling beer, wine, cigarettes, candy, sandwiches, fruit, or just about anything you would expect from a local downtown community market.
The main concern for these two business partners is a sense of community and giving back. They felt that they were really improving a service with their trash business and it is easy to see that this carries over into the beer and wine business.
They spend their time seeking out the rare items that their customers will like.[quote float=”left”]On any given month they may taste over 400 wines, with only 10 or so actually making it to the store. They offer a variety to those with minimal knowledge, and also to those with specific tastes.[/quote]
“Everyone gets treated the same whether you want an $8 dollar bottle of wine or a $1500 bottle of wine. You are going to get the same service and knowledge. We want your experience to be good and we want you to enjoy what you are buying,” explains Jeff.
Gregg says that they take pleasure in customers poking around the shop and finding hidden gems on the shelves. They strive to educate their consumers through tastings and events, stating that for them an educated consumer is their best customer.
With the drive and business savvy that Jeff and Gregg possess who knows what new opportunity they will have their hands in next, but in the meantime Jeff seems to be quite content.
“Wine business definitely beats real work. This is a fun job.”
And after decades of hard work these two certainly deserve to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
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