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Former Toys ‘R’ Us is finding its niche as a one-stop liquor, meat store

By Pat Sangimino

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    LINCOLN, Nebraska (Lincoln Journal Star) — Beau Starkel is all about the consumer experience, the one missing ingredient from the convenience of online shopping.

When he purchased the former Toys “R” Us location in north Lincoln in 2020 for $1.2 million, the plan was for it to house a liquor warehouse and event center.

The pandemic curtailed that idea and it was onto Plan B.

Wine, Beer and Spirits, 5220 N. 27th St. — affectionately known by its regulars as Booze “R” Us — went in a direction that no one could have predicted.

Starkel opened a bar inside the 30,000-square-foot retail space and filled the remainder of the store that once housed seemingly every childhood toy known to man with seemingly every adult beverage ever brewed, distilled or fermented.

The drink-while-you-shop model appears to be catching on. Nebraska Furniture Mart has added a bar and there are other niche liquor stores in the Omaha area that are following suit.

But Starkel wasn’t finished.

He recently formed an alliance with Charlie Emswiler, who founded Wahoo Locker in 1998 with his wife, Kristi, and has begun selling the shop’s award-winning meats in all five Wine, Beer and Spirits locations.

The meat counter will feature more than 500 different cuts of meat, while including the spices, rubs and cookware needed to prepare them.

Meat and beer. Throw in a Saturday football game and this might be the ultimate boys club.

“We wanted the meat side so we could capture more of the consumer wallet,” Starkel said. “Charlie’s got a great product — a lot of great products — and it’s just a perfect fit.”

With Wahoo Locker on board, Starkel is able to adhere to the buy-local mantra that was one of his guiding principles from the start.

“We just wanted to have a local guy because that’s a lot of our pushes,” he said. “That’s how we’re competing with Hy-Vee, Walmart, Costco and Sam’s Club. We’re local.”

And now the liquor warehouse offers the convenience of being a one-stop shop.

“Those guys are geniuses,” Emswiler said. “To be able to sit at a bar, have a drink and then go shopping for alcohol and meat is genius.”

That’s all part of the full-service trip to the store that Starkel is trying to create.

“We continue to try to push for a consumer experience — something Amazon can’t provide you with their little app,” he said. “… Amazon has done a good thing because they pushed a lot of (stores) to get better at retail.”

The consumer experience doesn’t have to be a race to the checkout line, Starkel contends. His customers come into the store and might have a drink before beginning their shopping endeavors.

“Our customers aren’t really in a hurry,” Starkel said. “It’s not like they’re at Costco trying to get in and out, especially if they get a drink. They’re gonna spend 30 to 45 minutes with us.

“There are a few retail experiences. They’re there to have a good time and relax.”

That might sound like the anti-shopping experience to some people, but Starkel is hopeful it will continue to be popular with the people who come into his stores.

The wheels are in motion to open three more Wine, Beer and Spirits locations — including a second Lincoln store, this one in south Lincoln — in the next couple of years.

“Lincoln has been a good place for us,” he said. “The north Lincoln store has been busy, and we think we’ll do well at the other end of town, too.”

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