RIDGELAND – One morning earlier this year, Allstate insurance agent Mark Doiron was reviewing a customer’s insurance policy on a liquor store in Ridgeland. By late afternoon, he was negotiating a deal to buy it.
“The owner casually mentioned that he looked forward to the day he could permanently retire and go fishing on the Gulf Coast, where he has a home,” said Doiron, 39, of Madison. “He had retired years before and was keeping the liquor store to supplement his retirement. I knew the location of the store was terrific for going-home traffic. Even though I didn’t know much about liquor laws and inventory, I knew I could learn.”
Doiron purchased the building and inventory for an undisclosed sum from Joe Armstrong of Madison, who had turned the establishment into a liquor store in 1984. The 1,800-square-foot structure had housed a nightclub and gambling room in the 1940s, and a church, a dress shop, a garage and a cable company before Armstrong purchased it.
“Over the years, the building had been added onto and piece-mealed together,” Doiron said. “We worked night and day for three months pulling up carpeting and flooring and cleaning up the place.”
After Doiron gave it a much-needed facelift, he renamed the establishment Olde Towne Fine Wine & Spirits.
“It cost between $10,000 and $20,000 to renovate the interior,” Doiron said. “It was more important to me to pay a little more and to have local artists come in and make the business unique.”
Bob Barbee of Flora, an artisan by trade with the Craftsman’s Guild, created wine racks and cabinets from birch. Artist Ann Beard of Ridgeland painted the entrance to a wine cellar behind the cash register.
“Our female clientele has increased tremendously since Ann painted that scene,” Doiron said. “In fact, in the short time we’ve been open, even with construction ongoing, our sales are up more than 30% over the same time last year.”
Learning about the alcohol industry required a crash course in regulations, measurements and marketing.
“My wife and I enjoy red wines and saw this as an opportunity to taste different types of reds,” he said. “We don’t drink spirits and we had to learn all about that. We didn’t know bottles were measured in metric, not English, measurements. I’ve learned you can’t market to dry counties, like Rankin County. I’ve been a sponge for information. I’m constantly reading articles in newspapers and magazines, and watching special programs on TV.”
Doiron replaced a computer system that wasn’t Y2K compatible, which had a now obsolete black and white monitor with tiny print and a dated system. He purchased a POS system, hired experienced personnel, like Gary Ezell of Madison, expanded the spirits room and set up corporate accounts.
“The biggest challenge with the liquor store has been renovating it while holding on to existing clients and developing new ones,” he said. “The biggest challenge in general has been raising twins, renovating the store, developing real estate, running an insurance company and officiating high school and college football games on weekends. I go to bed waking up.”
In high school in Vicksburg, a Kiwanis sponsor encouraged Doiron to consider insurance as a profession. Several years after attending Mississippi State University, Doiron became one of first Allstate agents in the state to open his own office.
“They took a chance on a single man,” Doiron said, with a laugh. “In 1985, I started with zero clients. I went door to door on weekends to drum up business. I only had one door slammed in my face by a lady who later ended up being one of my clients.”
“Even though insurance and alcohol may seem like very different industries, the importance of special orders and customer service is the same,” he said. “Many traits are transferable between one business and the other.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.