If you regularly visit more than one LCBO location you may have noticed how much beer selection can vary between outposts of Ontario's government-monopoly liquor retailer. It has to do with a variety of factors— including neighborhood demographics and the size of the store and its warehouse space. But the factor that often has the greatest effect is how committed the store's "beer guy" is to bringing in good beer.
Josh Bird worked at the LCBO in the Royal Bank Plaza and was in charge of the beer department there for over a year. He also has a degree in music from U of T, plays the sousaphone in a busker band called The Yonge Kings, and has applied to study brewing at Niagara College. Here (and here), he discusses all things beer and his work at the LCBO in particular.
When did you start working at the LCBO?
October 2010. When I started still in the union station before they closed it down for renovations and then we moved to a brighter, shinier, newer location across the street which was nice. It's about 100 feet north of the subway just by the Starbucks in the RBC banking tower.
Were you into beer then? Or were you just interested in it as a good paying retail job?
I was a craft beer guy. I've always had that soft spot. I try and do the buy local thing so craft beer falls right into that.
What was your title when you started?
I was just a customer service representative. That was actually my title when I left as well. Basically, that means you did cash, you stock, you're just a generic retail employee. Everyone has to do everything, except the manager, they have to handle the paperwork. There is one manager per store. When I started there was an assistant manager, but I think they're slowly phasing that position out.
What was that location like beer-wise when you first started?
Because we were in Union Station, it was a lot of the Max Ice and Old Milwaukee. There were a lot of people who just wanted one can of something and they wanted it as cheap as possible.
So, you start working at the LCBO. What's training like for a new customer service rep?
I went through the SmartServe training, well they call it SmartServe, it was slightly different than Ontario SmartServe for [bar and restaurant] servers – basically the same thing but designed specifically for working in an LCBO. Stopping shoplifting – you know, you talk to them, you're very kind, very attentive, but if they're going to take it, let them take it. Your life is not worth a bottle of booze. If you're friendly, and attentive most times that will scare away a lot of shoplifters because if you look them in the eye and you ask them if they need any help, what they're looking for, they think "this person is going to remember me." And they'll usually move on.
So, it started off as Yankee Jim and other cheap tall boys?
Yeah, when I started I had no input on that. I was a brand-new employee, they already had someone handling the beer section.
The person who handles the beer is just a CSR who has been identified as "the beer guy"?
Yeah, basically. It's not an official title, no extra pay. It's just trying to give you a little more responsibility and be a little more involved. Some of the bigger stores, they have an actual specific beer ambassador. In the bigger stores if you're telling someone they need to handle beer, that's all they do. It's just so much work at Summerhill or Queens Quay that if you don't have a dedicated, usually full-time employee to handle that, it's just going to be too much. The beer ambassador doesn't get extra pay, but they do get to go to the beer education events. They're keeping up-to-date on new craft breweries, the brewing technique, making sure your education level stays up-to-date. That's really all I know about them.
When you move to a new location at RBC Plaza was that a change for the beer selection?
No, not immediately. But we did start getting more people walking through the PATH system to Union Station and they did want more of the higher end brands. They didn't want to see your really cheap, discount brands there.
How do you know that?
Just by what we had in stock. Just something like [Labatt] Blue. They'd rather see Blue then an Old Milwaukee because Blue would sell like 10 cans to one Old Milwaukee. So we'd get rid of Old Milwaukee and bring something else in.We didn't really know too much about the demographics. We looked at First Canadian Place because it's the closest store, but that's mostly a Vintages wine store so there wasn't as much transfer over. When we moved in, all of a sudden we noticed that your domestic brands like your Canadian, Coors, Blue – not the discount brands, but not the real high-end stuff – were outselling things. Your imports, like here Guinness just took off, Stiegl and Spaaten as well.
What if somebody came into your store and said, for instance, "I'm looking for Chimay Blue" – what do you say to them?
Well, generally, I look into it. When I was the beer guy, I had a list and every time somebody would ask for something I would write it down.
What's the bar for bringing something in? Is it five requests?
By the end, it was actually pretty low. Mostly because I had shown that I knew what I was doing. That I wasn't going to bring in something that just didn't sell. Mostly I'd have something in even before a customer requested it.
What about things that weren't in the system? Was there a beer – something like Delirium Tremens – that somebody asked for, say every two months, was there an outlet for you to say to somebody at headquarters: "hey, we should bring this in"?
No, not really. Basically, at that point I tell the customers about the system where you can private order. Usually it's a minimum of a case and you pay and pick it up downtown at the special orders at Queens Quay.
Lead me through the process for the quarterly craft beer releases and the brewery features – how do they happen?
Those ones are what are called "forced products". Because the store will be assigned them. And they will say: "you are taking this whether you want it or not, you're getting it."
Quantity and SKUs?
Both. Usually they'll send you at least a couple cases. Once you've got those it will no longer be forced and you'll be free to de-list it. I never really ran into that because once I took over the beer section at our store and turned it into more of a craft beer destination, if anything I was always trying to get more and more of the forced products. I was just like: "you're going to force us two cases, let's say with Tripel Karmeliet, but I know we always do gangbusters with all of our individual Belgian bottles, so instead of sending me two cases why don't you send me 20?" And we sold them.
That's for the seasonal releases and the brewery features that they're forcing?
The brewery features are a little bit more complicated because a lot of times they are smaller quantity so only a limited number of stores are able to get them. If you're on the brewery feature you get all of them – you'd have to take at least one case of each one. You either get all of them or none of them. I spent three years trying to get us on the brewery feature. It's determined by sales trends, and size, and store designation.
I know Vintages has a strict thing about not putting the wines out before a certain date, is that the case for the beer releases?
Not in my store anyway. I don't know about the bigger stores if they follow that – they might have to. But in our store we had so little warehouse space that that was not an option.
When do shipments come in?
It depends on how big the shipment is, what other stores it's going to, traffic in the downtown core. Because it was never a truck going just to our store because we were such a small store. They're going to two other stores in the area and then coming to us.
How did you become the beer guy at your store?
I was at the store for about a year and a half before I became the beer guy. There were a couple guys who did it before and they'd transferred out, and my manager said, "Josh, you're really into the beer, you're good with customers, do you want to do it?"
I said, "yeah I'm definitely game to do that."
She trusted me that I was going to make smart decisions and that as much as I loved craft beer and wanted to support it, if it was not selling at all I would replace it. She basically gave me complete autonomy – she said tell me what you're doing, but I'll let you do it.
So, I said let's try to bring some craft beer in. All we really have is Mill Street Organic and Steamwhistle so let's bring in some Beau's.
One by one I brought in new things and slowly expanded. People in my store at least were hesitant to try a full sixpack of the beer. So, I'd start bringing in more and more individual cans. Somebody would buy one to try it out and then the next week they'd buy six.
Does anybody pay for space?
Not in the beer section as far as I was aware of. I think in the wine fridge you pay for space because it's usually a very small fridge, but at least for me I was never told I had to keep something in the fridge because they are paying for it to be there. Certain ones I couldn't take out of the fridge. I mean, there was no way Molson Canadian could come out without people with torches and pitchforks coming to get me.
Is it acceptable to break open sixpacks by pulling a single bottle out and taking it up the cash?
It's rather frustrating, to be honest. It's frustrating for restocking it because now I have this partial sixpack and no one is going to buy a partial sixpack. Eventually I just gave up and created one of those "staff pick" baskets with individual bottles.
And with some you can't. For some the \brewers won't create an individual SKU for them. Sometimes it's the breweries and sometimes it's the LCBO that decides: no, you can't break that one apart.
I recommend every customer who is going to do this should take it to the cash and say: "I took this from a sixpack, does it have an individual price?" If it's from a sixpack that bottle scans as a sixpack unless you key it in as an individual bottle.
If someone has a beer guy at their local LCBO when is the best time to go in and see them and ask what's new and what's coming up?
Not during the rush. That's anytime between five and seven in the evening. Also try to avoid right at opening or closing.
If I see that another LCBO location has a beer I want could I ask you to have it transferred to your store?
It's tough. Honestly, if [the other store was] within TTC limits I'd just tell you to commute to save time and effort. If not, it's manager's discretion while being overseen by the higher ups as well as the store that has it being willing to let it go. If the store is confident they will sell it then they'd rather just sell it themselves. Usually, you'd have to buy a full case in that scenario simply because breaking bottles during shipping is more likely with a partially-filled case.
Why did you stop working at the LCBO?
Honestly, it's because I'm a musician by trade and I got involved with a busking band. The busking band really started to take off and it gave me a chance to follow what my career dream actually is.
Part of the thing about brewing beer that appeals to me is the same thing that appeals to me about composing music. It's creative. I compose and the feeling of creating something that connects with other people is a huge draw for me. And I feel like craft beer offers that same opportunity.
This interview has been edited and abridged. Want more? See part two here.
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