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Liquor stores must pick up their game

She wasn’t happy when she heard the news. Who can blame her? It’s tough enough running a small business in Buffalo without having a game-changing challenger muscle into the neighborhood. At 45, Lesle Heubach would rather not have to fight for professional survival.

Then again, Heubach’s family liquor store has survived a world war, decades of suburban flight and a recession. The plus-sized wine place opening soon next to the nearby Wegman’s parking lot in Black Rock, is just another storm cloud.

Heubach – whose grandfather opened the business when Prohibition ended – may not have fists raised in “bring it on” defiance. But neither is she cowering behind the cabernet rack.

“This is going to hurt all of the smaller stores,” Heubach told me while stocking shelves at Gates Circle Liquor & Wines. “People will definitely go and check it out. But I think they will come back.”

She’s right, and that is how she – and all the other store owners – should look at it. Capitalism isn’t cuddly. Only the strong survive – and the smaller stores need to play to their strengths.

Wegman’s essentially found a legal end-around past the state’s prohibition on alcohol sales (except beer) in supermarkets. Opening next month in leased space on the supermarket’s property is a liquor store co-owned by Nicole Wegman, daughter of CEO Danny Wegman. Although independently owned, for Wegman’s it is the next best thing to wine on the supermarket shelf.

At 15,000 square feet, Amherst St. Wine & Liquor can cut prices by buying in volume, feature – as in the supermarket – discounted store brands, and tap into masses of grocery shoppers. There is reason for neighborhood wine store owners to be afraid, very afraid.

But it’s not a cause for panic. There is plenty they can do that a supermarket-connected place can’t. The willing and able will survive.

Why get ticked off by the Wegman’s end-around? Supermarkets in numerous states sell wine or even hard stuff. It’s only a matter of time until the supermarket lobby in Albany defeats the corner-store protectors. The Wegman’s sidestep is merely a pre-dinner cocktail, a taste of things to come. Either neighborhood wine stores up their games, if they haven’t already, or they – deservedly – will close their doors. That may sound harsh, but no business is guaranteed survival.

Heubach – dark-haired, chatty, with a quick smile – understands. She has to. Her parents own the place. A niece and a cousin work there. If the doors shut, it ripples through generations.

“We can beat them on customer service,” Heubach said of the bigger-store threat. “We know people by name. Somebody comes in, needs a nice $12 red, we have a few suggestions.”

We’ve seen this story before. The Home Depot explosion threatened neighborhood hardware stores. Walmart cast a cloud over Main Street. Neighborhood places fought back with know-your-name service, know-your-product advice and closer-to-home proximity. Which isn’t to say it’s easy. Bakeries and butcher shops, once plentiful, have nearly disappeared from the landscape. In market-driven America, it’s survival of the fittest.

Heubach intends to stay near the top of the food chain. Gates Circle has wine education classes, staff recommendations, weekly wine tastings and catered dinners with local restaurants. As we spoke in the store Friday, Heubach greeted a regular customer – who thanked her for the drink.

What drink?

“I saw her out the other night,” she said, “and bought her one.”

It’s the sort of customer service you don’t get from – or near – the supermarket.