Co-owner of Gateway Liquor & Wine in Fulton talks about how he got started in the liquor business
By Steve Yablonski
Q: Can you tell me a little about your background?
A: I grew up in Minetto. I lived there until high school graduation. In fall of 1995, I left for the Navy. I served as an aviation structural mechanic, in California and Texas. After the Navy, I spent a year in Oswego and then moved on to Oregon where I worked in lumber mills for a couple of years until I began attending community college as a sociology major, then political science. I did some campaign work and internship stuff. In 2003 I moved back to Oswego.
Q: What is your new business?
A: Gateway Liquor & Wine, 417 S. Second St., Fulton.
Q: Where were you working before you started the liquor store?
A: Before that, we have a construction company, Pinnacle, which is still going strong. We also now have a car wash in Camden, Camden Car Wash and Storage. We just bought that in December 2019. We have a great employee there who keeps things running smoothly. He takes care of the day-to-day stuff, so I don’t have to go there every day. That business was kind of slow as not many people went out during the pandemic. We’re staying busy with the construction company. I’m working a lot, but it keeps me out of trouble.
Q: How did you start the liquor store? Why did you decide to start it?
A: We started the liquor store first, the car wash came later. One day, my business partner, Lance Pezzlo [a partner in the car wash, also], looks at me and says, “Do you want to open a liquor store?” I said, “Sure.” After that we started shopping for a location. It seemed like a good opportunity to diversify.
Q: Was it difficult to get started?
A: Opening a liquor store has its own set of challenges because it is such a highly regulated product. So, starting out there was a big learning curve.
Q: How much did you invest?
A: Once we found a location, we reached out to Pathfinder Bank and they were able to help us get started.
“One day, my business partner looks at me and says, ‘Do you want to open a liquor store?’ I said, ‘Sure.’”
Q: What problems did you face at the start?
A: We had to learn what products people wanted and how much of what product to order. And, we had to establish relationships with suppliers, learn the liquor laws, secure the building and enter all products into our new POS [point of sales] system.
Q: What services do you offer? What’s your best seller?
A: We strive to provide friendly and efficient service. We try to keep the store neat, clean and organized so when folks are in a hurry they are in and out. Flavored vodkas are big, Fire Ball, Titos and Recipe 21. We try to keep a diverse bourbon and whisky section. We also have a respectable selection of New York wines.
Q: How many employees do you have?
A: We have six.
Q: How would you describe your business philosophy?
A: Friendly service in a clean and easy-to-manage environment.
Q: What is the best part of your job?
A: I would say the best part of working at Gateway is dealing with the customers. The people who come in the store are fantastic. The city of Fulton has been a great partner since the beginning.
Q: Who are the people who’ve influenced you the most?
A: My parents, they taught me to work hard and treat people with respect. That’s huge, I believe it’s all you really need in life to be successful. If you do those two things doors will open for you, you just need to make the decision whether or not to walk through.
I learned a lot from my business partner, Lance. He’s kind of a natural with this stuff. When you’re going to put your neck out there, it’s nice to have someone you trust at your side.
Q: How has the pandemic had an impact on your life, personal and professional?
A: The pandemic has definitely been a learning experience, in all our business ventures. It’s certainly created a whole different set of issues. Lance’s wife, Sara, manages the store. She has always done a fantastic job. During the pandemic, Sara really stepped up.
Q: How do you manage family time?
A: You just make it work. We have four kids: two boys, two girls. I help coach the kids’ lacrosse, Cub Scouts. There are a lot of outdoor activities. The kids play a lot of sports. We make it work somehow. It helps to have a lot of good people helping you; working with people you can count on, people you can rely on.
Q: Does your wife work?
A: Yes. She is a school psychologist. She is on school hours. So that is helpful. My wife, Jenny, keeps us all organized for all the family stuff, sports schedules. I call her and say what’s going on this evening? Three kids need to be at soccer, another one needs to be at dance. OK, what do I have to do? She keeps me on top of things.
Q: What kind of hours do you keep?
A: It depends. Seems there are always things that need to be dealt with. You’re the bottom line. You have to find good help and good leadership and try to balance it all out. Hopefully, I’ve done that.
Q: If you weren’t doing this, what would your job be?
A: I imagine I could find something else to do. We tend to keep busy.
Q: When do you feel the most at ease?
A: When the liquor store is closed for the night, all construction projects are safely secured for the day, the car wash is running well and my wife and kids are home.
Q: Do you ever think about retiring?
A: Yeah. I think about it. Don’t think it will be any time soon. I don’t know if I want to retire all the way. I like staying busy. You know how it is; you’ve got to find something to do.