By Chris Chamers • Photos by Jessica McCafferty
Five years into retirement Scott Hite was bored. He was curious about buying a business, so he started a search where many of us would start – on Facebook. That planted the seed that created Livations Wine & Spirits and more.
The initial post brought an unexpected number contacts offering businesses for sale: a restaurant, a liquor store in Plattsburgh, so many ice cream places, and more. Initially Hite was curious about the restaurant business and reached out to his brother, but with the continent between the two, the idea was a hard sell. It was then he saw a listing for Swain’s Wine & Spirits in Peru, New York. That was when he brought his wife, Mary Ann Cayea, into the fold. “We were looking for a business that was both recession-proof and pandemic-proof,” he explained. “We were comfortable with the small scale of the liquor store. We did the research, the numbers made sense and we had a good feeling.”With Scott and Mary Ann in agreement, the transition began. Scott worked with Bonny Trost, the previous owner of Swain’s, for six months.
Buying a liquor store business is more complicated than buying most businesses. There are elements that need to come together before the purchase can go through. The new owners need enough cash, confidence to sit with a rolling list of debt and a valid New York State liquor license.
The couple was not buying the property — only the inventory of liquor. When Scott reached out to banks for funding, none of them could assist. Since banks don’t have liquor licenses, if the business was to go under, they could not legally take on the liability. This required creativity with funding, making the couple’s decision scarier than originally anticipated. But they pushed on.
Another complication was dealing with distributors who work on a credit-based system. Liquor stores, like Livations, order product and promptly receive an invoice payable within 30 days. The hope is the store has moved enough of the product to pay the bill by the time it comes due. There is always a delicate balance of keeping enough inventory on hand and selling enough to pay the distributor.
The final hurdle for the sale was contingent on Scott and Mary Ann getting a New York State liquor license, an achievement that took a long six months. (Liquor licenses stay with the business and each business needs to have its own license.)
Before owning Livations, Scott was an investigator for the New York State Police and owned investment properties. Mary Ann was and still is the Director of Perioperative Services at CVPH Medical Center. What started with curiosity on Scott’s end has turned into a family business with Brette, Mary Ann’s daughter, now as the liquor store’s manager.
When the purchase went through in April of 2021, the changes started. The store underwent a complete transformation. Outdated styles were replaced with a modern, spacious look. The window bars in front of the store were removed and a wood lattice was taken down to open the interior space. A fresh coat of paint and new shelves went up, as well as a new counter for the register. The store is now set up like a grocery store — the perimeter offers all the necessities and the middle aisles have the backstop and room for less common purchases. Much of the work was done by family members who put in their fair share of sweat equity.
“We started fresh and tapped into what people liked,” Scott explained. “We have no frame of reference for the liquor store, so we are learning as we go. We saw a business opportunity and it’s been interesting. Our philosophy is to be community-based, so that’s where we focus our efforts.”
Livations doubled the existing inventory and expanded based on customer requests. They worked with their employees to create a community vibe within the store, focusing on greeting customers and helping them with their selections.
Scott and Mary Ann incorporated the liquor store, benefiting from tax breaks, including coverage for the cars used for delivery and for the additional protective layer a corporation offers.
An additional complication for any store selling alcoholic beverages is the need to card customers. Periodically undercover law enforcement will drop in to verify they are doing it. Livations is no exception. The store has already experienced a couple of attempted stings — an operation where an undercover officer tries to purchase liquor without an ID. No free pass for retired law enforcement.
Scott is enjoying the challenge of owning and marketing the small liquor business. He has started making videos on Instagram and Facebook. In addition to the new marketing, the store offers more deals and does same-day delivery.
Since purchasing Livations, Scott and Mary Ann have expanded within the plaza, buying the car wash and laundromat. Scott is thrilled about the growth for reasons beyond business. It seems it had been his dream to own a car wash. Who knew?
In true Livations manner, both new businesses are getting upgrades. The couple brought in a company that would go through the car wash, increasing its dependability — an important service during North Country winters. In addition, the laundromat will soon receive new, industrial-sized washers and driers.
Times are changing for Scott. With Brette currently operating all three Livations businesses and Mary Ann busy at the Medical Center, he has taken a step back. Ironically, after creating this empire just a few years ago, he is ready to be lazy again. Or not.
Livations Wine & Spirits
2 Gorman Way
Peru, NY 12972
Scott and Mary Ann have some tips for anyone thinking about small business ownership:
“Buying an existing business is the best. You know what you’re getting.
You don’t have to put up as much capital to get things started.
You can see what the business is already bringing in and you can evaluate its potential.
And don’t rule out sweat equity. That’s the best investment you can make.”