With move to new location, Lawrence liquor store becomes biggest in town

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Jon Smiley, owner of Cork & Barrel, is pictured on Sept. 18, 2020, at the store's new location at 23rd Street and Ousdahl Road.

Surely this isn’t the first time that mixology has won out over macrame as a hobby. But, indeed, that type of victory has occurred as the former site of Lawrence’s Hobby Lobby store on 23rd Street has been converted into the city’s largest liquor store.

We reported in November that plans had been filed for Cork & Barrel to move from its longtime home at 23rd and Iowa streets and into a portion of the former Hobby Lobby store at 23rd and Ousdahl. Well, that plan has come to fruition, as Cork & Barrel opened in the spot a few weeks ago. (Hobby Lobby, of course, simply moved to south Iowa Street.)

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Cork & Barrel took over about 30,000 square feet of the former Hobby Lobby store at 23rd Street and Ousdahl Road, after the craft retailer moved to south Iowa Street.

Most of last fall’s plans have panned out — the biggest being the store has grown from 13,000 square feet at its old location to nearly 30,000 square feet at its new one — but some items have had to change.

“You know, all the planning was done pre-COVID,” owner Jon Smiley said.

The pandemic has caused Cork & Barrel to put on hold plans to open a large classroom space for people wanting to learn more about — and taste more — wine and spirits. Smiley said local health regulations don’t technically prohibit him from offering the tastings and classes currently, but he’s not yet ready to venture into that territory.

“It is more of a comfort thing,” Smiley said. “I just don’t think the public is comfortable engaging in that right now.”

But the new space does have a large room set aside for the classes and tasting area once the environment changes. TVs, tables and other equipment will be installed, and the room already features a glass wall that houses the store’s top-end wine collection.

That’s a new feature the store has added now that it has more space, Smiley said.

“I’m carrying some wines that I’ve never thought of carrying before,” he said.

The case had wines in the $50 range all the way up to one $2,499 bottle of red wine from the Romanée-Saint-Vivant territory of the Burgundy region of France.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

The new Cork & Barrel store features a large display case for high end wines. On the other side of the display wall is a room that will be used for tastings and classes in the future.

Smiley said pretty much every spirit department has had some new brands added to its inventory as a result of the bigger store. But he said, in one of many unexpected twists of the pandemic, customers have been turning more to their old favorites rather than new brands. Why? Smiley suspects it is because many people used bars and restaurants as the place to sample a new spirit before deciding whether to buy an entire bottle of it. With bars and restaurants either closed or seeing greatly reduced dine-in business, that process isn’t happening.

But, yes, more people are coming into liquor stores now that they aren’t going to the bars so often, Smiley said. However, those increased retail sales haven’t been enough to entirely offset the amount of lost restaurant business liquor stores have seen. In Kansas, bars and restaurants can buy their beer from wholesale distributors, but they must buy their wine and spirits from licensed liquor stores.

“But business is still fine,” Smiley said, despite the hit to that side of the business.

He said he also thinks the larger store sets up the business well for the future. Now that grocery and convenience stores can sell full-strength beer in Kansas, Smiley thinks liquor stores will have to do more to become destination locations. That may become even more important in the future because Smiley is expecting Kansas law to change to allow grocery stores to sell wine at some in the next five years or so.

“Price, service and selection is definitely a focus of what we are going for here,” Smiley said. “I can’t always compete with a grocery store on convenience, but I think I can in the other areas.”

Once the pandemic passes, that’s where he thinks the classroom space and special tastings will help the business. He said he wants to work with local restaurants and chefs to teach about food, wine and spirits. Plus, he said the store has connections with other specialty groups like certified wine educators. He said he expects one of the first classes he’ll offer teaches people to better detect the various aromas of wine — flowers, fruits, leather or, I kid you not, I once was at a tasting where a wine enthusiast said he smelled the hint of a new Band Aid. Yes, I absolutely went ahead and drank the wine. (I enjoyed it, but thought it was a little sticky on the palate. Or, maybe, I just need a class.)


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