BUSINESS MONDAY: Live a “SPIRITED” life!

Family History – Lebanese roots sown in Berkshire soil

To understand Jim Nejaime’s success as owner of SPIRITED Wines in Lenox, you need to know some family history. For example, the fact that his mother (Marilyn), a US citizen of Lebanese descent, visited Lebanon in the mid-1950s, fell in love and married. And more importantly, she convinced her husband (Nabih Nejaime) to come back to the US with her to have a life together.

They emigrated in 1955 and settled in Torrington, Connecticut, where her father owned a grocery store. Nejaime, who studied restaurant and hotel management in Beirut, helped run this business and worked with a cousin to run his own business in neighboring Harwinton. In 1962 his life took an unexpected turn when, on his way to visit his sister in North Adams, he came across a market for sale on Main Street in Stockbridge and made an offer. His first step as owner was to change the name from Stockbridge Market to Nejaime’s Stockbridge Shop.

An iconic painting and a name that has become famous

Norman Rockwell and his wife Molly lived around the corner from the market. They made it a habit to cycle to the store to buy the Lebanese food they had come to love – so often that they became friends with Nabih and Marilyn. Based on their mutual respect and affection, Rockwell added the name “Nejaime’s Stockbridge Shop” above the market in his icon home for christmas (Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas) Painting after sending to McCall’s, and then resubmitted it to the magazine. (The original eight-foot painting hangs in the nearby Norman Rockwell Museum.) The illustration was published by the magazine in December 1967 and made both the painting and the Nejaime family name famous.

The part of Norman Rockwell’s painting “Home for Christmas” showing Nejaime’s Stockbridge shop. Image courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum

“We grew up working in the grocery store,” explains Jim Nejaime. “In 1970, Dad bought a wine shop around the corner on Elm Street, but eight years later it wasn’t making any money, so he made plans to sell it.” These discussions and plans prompted Nejaime to leave Boston and a desk job in finance for to come to the Berkshires to run the wine business.

“My roommates and I have always had a passion for wine,” he says, “and I took advanced courses after college to learn more about the art of winemaking.” Those courses quickly paid dividends. Soon after (1980) his brother Joe moved up from Florida and they opened two more wine shops together – one in Lenox Village in 1982 and one (the future “SPIRITED” shop) on Route 7 in 1988. They began Importing wines from artisanal wineries in France, Italy and Spain, and business picked up speed.

Break off business relationships to maintain family ties

Jim and Joe Nejaime were happily business partners for 33 years and ran three businesses together (one in Stockbridge and two in Lenox). In 2012, anticipating some of their adult children joining the companies, they decided to make a change to avoid family conflicts over who owns what in the future. “Joe kept the two wine shops in Nejaime village center (in Stockbridge and Lenox) and I took over the ‘SPIRITED’ wine shop on Route 7,” says Jim soberly. This decision has helped them remain close family allies and avoid problems with second-generation work roles. Also, the “realities of the estate” made independence beneficial to each of the brothers.

Consistent mission

When asked how he defines success, Jim doesn’t hesitate. “We have a company to be proud of that is financially successful and employs a number of people profitably while providing our customers with great wines, food and spirits that enrich their lives,” he replies. “We feel blessed that 99.9 percent of our sales don’t go to people with addiction problems, but to customers who enjoy what we add to their lives – people who love our business and thank us.” He also counts himself lucky that Massachusetts (unlike Connecticut and New York) permits the joint sale of liquor and food, enabling it to sell deli sandwiches, all the ingredients of a locally rich charcuterie board, and the Lebanese specialties once popular with the Rockwells.

In addition to wine, beer and spirits, SPIRITED offers artisan cheeses, gourmet dishes, gift baskets and paninis. Photo courtesy of SPIRITED Wines

He adds that running a successful business is all about relationships – something Jim is good at building and nurturing (he currently chairs the Membership Committee at Stockbridge Golf Club). To illustrate just how far his reach stretches, he shares this anecdote: “A longtime customer from the Boston area told me the other day that he was at a conference with another doctor who asked him where he bought his wine. “I have a little store in Western Mass,” he told his friend, only to realize they’ve both been shopping at SPIRITED for years! These kinds of conversations keep the business going.”

Pandemic and recession proof business

You don’t have to remember specifically New Yorker Cartoons to remind people how amazing the increase in alcohol sales was in the first two years of the pandemic. According to a study by the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, sales at liquor stores grew to $41.9 billion from March to September 2020 — a 20 percent increase compared to the same period in 2019. While retail sales at food service establishments increased by 15 Percent below pre-COVID -19 in September 2020, sales at beer, wine and spirits stores increased 17 percent and remained at that level throughout the pandemic.

“The truism that people buy alcohol in good times and bad remains true,” says Nejaime. “The pandemic has been a time for us that has been embarrassingly beneficial commercially as it has been such a difficult time for people at large. Because the government (like grocery stores) considered us essential, we didn’t experience the disruption experienced by other stores that had to close.”

In fact, with so many people staying or working from home and the huge influx of people moving into the area, it has been difficult to keep up with demand. His 20 employees were feeling exhausted, so he reduced store hours to weather the peak of the pandemic. Even now, with recession talks filling the airwaves, business remains strong. “Although we are more of a discretionary buy amid rising interest rates and falling markets, there hasn’t been much volatility in wine and spirits prices compared to the uptrend in groceries and restaurants,” explains Nejaime.

However, there were two downsides to running your business during the pandemic. First, Nejaime hasn’t been able to hold his usual weekly wine tastings in person in-store – although he has managed to hold virtual tastings that offer the same industry know-how, special offers and valued recommendations.

Second, the halt to international travel has forced him to take a break from his semi-annual trips to the world’s major wine regions, including visits to the boutique wineries that imported them directly to the United States. His most recent trip was at the end of 2019 when he traveled to wine regions in the Rhone Valley, Provence and the South of France. Nejaime plans to continue these wine discovery journeys with an excursion to northern Italy in early 2023. Although he used to travel long distances, he now plans to keep his trips relatively short (five to seven days) and to confine himself to one country.

Livio Voghera: Winemaker/Owner Livio Voghera and Jim Nejaime at the L. Voghera Barrel Room in Nieve, Barbaresco, Italy. Photo by Vittorio Zoppi

“Make new friends, keep old ones”

How does Nejaime acquire new customers and keep the old ones? Well, for one, SPIRITED is in a great location, just a short distance from Price Chopper/Market 32 ​​and Guido’s on a busy stretch of Route 7. While not a quaint village, the Holmes Road junction is easy to find and offers plenty of free parking. Jim is also good friends with all of the local business owners. “Most of our customer base is organic,” he says.

Then there’s the free weekly wine tastings held in-store (usually on Saturdays), with face-to-face visits from winemakers from France, Italy, Spain and California. Recent in-store tastings featured Tuscan winemaker Roberto Stucchi of Badia A Coltibuono Winery, who presented six wines ranging from a Sangiovese (on sale for $11.99) to the “Super Tuscan” Montebello (on sale for $49, $99), and Wine Rep Cat Anderson presenting Small Estate Spanish Wine Gems (all for sale). According to Nejaime, the most memorable wine tasting to date has been the giant tent tasting, last held in 2019, which showcased over 80 curated wines and generated tremendous sales.

Roberto Stucchi, Tuscan winemaker, and Jim Nejaime at a recent in-store wine tasting. Photo by Robbi Hartt

Nejaime also hosts wine tastings, seminars and off-site dining together at restaurants such as Wheatleigh, Alta, Haven and Bistro Zinc (all in Lenox), Mazzeo’s in Pittsfield, Cafe Adam in Great Barrington and Old Inn on the Green in New Marlboro. “The ‘great pairing’ of experience, special events and customer connections makes the job even more rewarding,” says Nejaime.

While attracting more customers is difficult for most businesses, it wasn’t a problem for Nejaime. “We find that our best source is word of mouth, from one customer to another,” he notes. Social media also helps (SPIRITED has almost 2,500 Facebook followers and 1,082 Instagram followers). Finally, there is the exceptional service provided by the experienced staff. “When you visit the store, there’s a welcoming and helpful atmosphere — the staff make notes of your purchases and preferences, and invite you to join our mailing list so we can keep track of special offers,” says Nejaime. Customers can also log into the site to keep up to date with upcoming events and other offers.

successor plan?

“We are happy with the way things are. We grow our business by retaining customers and attracting new customers through word of mouth,” says Nejaime, adding that they have no plans for brick-and-mortar expansion. “We will keep our single location and continue to provide the personalized attention and service that our customers have come to expect.” When asked if his daughters have expressed an interest in taking over the store at a later date, he replies: “Currently all three are very successful and happy in her own career and I look forward to continuing to do what I love. Greeting!”

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