Photo by Chris Ware
“Oy vey! What have you done?”
That’s what Zachy Zacharia, the founder of Zachys Wine & Liquor, Inc., would say if he could see his Scarsdale store today, says Zachys President Jeff Zacharia, 51. His paternal grandfather, a Polish immigrant, would see that the 150-square-foot, two-employee East Parkway Liquor House, which he bought in 1944, has morphed into one of the country’s most celebrated wine shops, offering one of the most complete selections of fine wine in the United States. He would see 5,500 square feet of retail space and tens of thousands of square feet of storage space, equipped with remote monitoring and climate control via a 50-ton refrigeration system. The store carries more than 3,000 brands of wine, mostly from France, Italy, Chile, Argentina, Spain, Australia, and the United States.
Zachys is satisfying demand not only from its in-store customers, but also over the Internet, with traditional patron purchases as well as auction sales. In 2011, Zachys racked up just under $80 million in wine auctions online and in Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong, all of which were open to anyone. In 2010, auction sales totaled $65 million. “Its auction business has brought Zachys a lot more national and international attention,” says Westchester Wine School Director Ned Towle.
Zachys.com, which launched in 1999 (and which Jeff had a big hand in developing), draws customers from all over the world. “Depending on the time of year—for example, Thanksgiving, New Year’s, and the December holidays—anywhere between thirty to fifty percent of our business is through the Internet,” says Zacharia. A website purchase must be at least $100, and the biggest order so far totaled $100,000. While the website has meant a decrease in in-store business, it has also increased the number of visits to the store since many Internet orders are picked up in Scarsdale.
In fact, Internet sales have created a whole new form of competition, and Zachys is coming out on top. People can now buy not only from their local wine shop, but from a wine shop on the other side of the country. “You have to be on the cutting edge of prices and the wines that people want,” says Towle, “and Zachys engages in a lot of sales and special online promotions to maintain their base. I would also say that they have the most user-friendly online system—one that’s as good as or better than anyone else’s in the region.” But not all expansion has been on the web. Zachys also holds more food and wine events, wine-tasting benefits, and wine-themed dinners, all events taking place in Westchester and Manhattan.
Zacharia frequently jets to Bordeaux and Burgundy to taste new vintages, keep abreast of upcoming trends, and visit and buy from suppliers and vineyard owners. (He’s fluent in French.) He also visits Hong Kong, where Zachys holds fine-wine auctions and where the family is considering opening a branch of the store. The store’s global presence would undoubtedly make Zachy Zacharia’s head spin. “I don’t think he would understand this growth and change, but he would be happy about it,” Jeff says.
Here’s another aspect that Jeff’s grandfather never would have fathomed: Because many of its nearly 100 employees are multilingual, Zachys can cater to wine lovers from many different cultures. The staff includes four buyers, 15 sellers, print designers for its advertising, and departments for accounting, customer service, and IT. Two people work on social media, but Zacharia says that it hasn’t had as much of an impact on sales and presence as he’d like. “But we’re working on it.”
Stew Leonard, Jr., the president and CEO of the world’s largest dairy store, Stew Leonard’s, got to know the Zacharias when, in 1998, he and his father, Stew, Sr., were about to open their first wine store, at the Stew Leonard’s in Yonkers, and needed some advice. “I figured I’d ask the best of the best,” says Leonard, Jr. “Jeff was a great coach and source of information for us.”
Jeff’s father, Don, today Zachys CEO, bought East Parkway Liquor House from his father, Zachy, in 1961. He renamed it, moved it into a much larger space two doors down, introduced wine into its wares, and sent it on its way to where it is now. And even today Zachys remains a family affair: It’s owned by Jeff, sister Jen, Don, and Jen’s husband, Andrew McMurray, who joined up in 1993. As vice president, McMurray is in charge of buying, marketing, and day-to-day operations of the store. Jeff and his wife, Frederique, live in Scarsdale and have four children, ages 20, 18, and 13 (twins).
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Back when Jeff was a history major at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, however, his mind was more on Frisbees than fine wine. After graduating, he “played around for a while and did some backpacking,” he says. “And, after a bit of time, my father offered me a job. I said, ‘Well, let me try it for six months and see if it’s something that I really want to do.’” But it only took two days for Jeff to decide that he wanted to make Zachys his career. “I realized how I always had loved the business.”
He started as a salesman on the floor in 1983, and spent 15 years studying the trade, working closely with customers, and learning from his father and grandfather. While his title remained salesman, his duties grew. “We’ve never focused a lot on titles here,” Jeff says. “It’s more about responsibility. For a long time, I didn’t even have a title. I knew what I did. There’s no official date when I took over. It happened slowly over the past fifteen years.”
Jeff says that working alongside his dad is “one of the greatest blessings in my life. We never argue and almost never disagree on business issues.”
Zacharia says that there are people from abroad and outside of the New York metro area who make a point to get to Zachys when they visit Manhattan—the Scarsdale Metro-North station right across the street has proved quite advantageous—and folks often take a detour to Zachys while driving through the tri-state area. Meanwhile, Westchester’s wine aficionados have it easy. Every Saturday, anywhere from 150 to 400 fans flock to the store from noon to 4 pm for free wine tastings. “You can read all the books you want, but until you taste and understand wine, you can’t really comprehend what it’s all about,” he says. “I like to say, ‘We taste thousands of wines so you don’t have to.’”
The sour American economy hasn’t corked customers’ enthusiasm. “While our average dollar sales went down by about fifteen percent, the number of bottles we sold stayed the same,” Zacharia says. “That told us that people still like to drink wine—they’re just stepping down. Whereas they used to buy a fifty-dollar bottle of wine, they might now buy one for thirty.”
The company’s employees are also fiercely loyal. Michael Thomas, who is a floor manager and the liquor buyer, recently celebrated his 30th anniversary. “Whenever possible, we like to promote from within. I think that keeps people here because they know there’s somewhere they can move to.”
With so much talk about wine, let’s not forget that Zachys also carries liquor. Okay, so spirits account for about 10 percent of its in-store display, but, says Zacharia, “There is also romance to the liquors. We carry a tequila that a family in Mexico makes in certain ways that absolutely separate their tequila from the rest of the pack; it sells very well. As for whiskey, there are single batches of bourbons—single barrels of the stuff—so there are definitely unique and special products in that side of the business as well.”
Zacharia himself loves wine and every night sits down to a dinner that includes a bottle. On weekdays, it comes from his store and, on weekends, he picks them from the stash in his home cellar—“Old World wines, which are generally from France, Italy, and Spain.” Just as Zacharia began at Zachys working the floor, one of his kids might soon be out there following in his footsteps. Eighteen-year-old college student Tom has worked at Zachys, spent last summer working at a Bordeaux château, and helped Jeff at an auction in Hong Kong. Like his father and Uncle Andrew, Tom is smitten with the wine business. Jeff would be thrilled if Tom or any of Jen’s kids wanted to carry on the legacy. “They would be the fourth generation here. That would be great!”
Jenny Higgons of Hastings-on-Hudson always stops into Zachys when in Scarsdale.