Most of us know how difficult it can be to maintain a collection of craft beer at home. For one, you’ve got to know where to go (or who to know) to find the best of what’s out there. Then there’s the space issue (for me, that means beer > food in my single fridge), not to mention “best by” dates and proper cellaring conditions. Now imagine that you had the opportunity to create a commercial “home away from home” where you could publicly share your passion for beer hoarding (ahem, collecting) with your friends and neighbors while stocking the best assortment of beer in the region. Rick Ali got such an opportunity seven years ago when he opened Lone Star Beverages, and last Friday, I spent the day at the shop to learn the secrets of his success.
It’s not easy building the reputation that Rick has at Lone Star – easily one of, if not the, best craft beer shop in and around Dallas. Its modest storefront belies its outstanding selection – if a beer is distributed in Dallas, you’ll find it at Lone Star (and if you don’t, Rick will make sure to track one down for you). Not only will you likely find what you came looking for, but you’ll also probably walk out with more than a few unexpected purchases (the ones that you later tell your significant other just magically appeared in your cart). Knowing full well the minefield of phenomenal beer I was about to walk into, I braced myself for the urge to go on a beer shopping spree as I entered the store around 9:30 AM.
Rick was already hard at work when I arrived, completing his daily inventory check and going over the sales from the night before. For the convenience of customers, Lone Star is open late (midnight during the week and 1 AM on Saturday), and it’s a constant balancing act to juggle his seemingly never-ending work schedule and quality time with his wife and toddler. Rick took a break to show me around the almost 4,000-square-foot shopping space, which included a stop inside the store’s most unique feature – a gigantic, two-room walk-in cooler (affectionately called the “beer cave”) that features shelves upon shelves of both local and national craft beer organized by geographic location. If it wasn’t so cold, I think the store’s employees and I could easily imagine moving in. After touring the space, we popped open a bottle of hard cider around 10:15 AM (why not?), and Rick adeptly balanced a business conversation with Miller of Denton representative Daniel Whitfield while recalling Lone Star’s beginnings.
Long before Lone Star opened, Rick worked as a real estate agent while his father-turned-business-partner Sam was in the convenience store business. Feeling burnt out in the real estate game and well-aware of the lack of beer/wine stores in the region (due to the fact that, at the time, Carrollton was a dry county), Rick jumped at an opportunity to pursue his passion for craft beer full-time and opened Lone Star as soon as Carrollton went wet in 2006. As it turns out, Rick and Sam’s joint decision to get into the beer business was the easiest part. The hardest – getting the space up to snuff. The two worked together to revamp an old Drug Emporium strip mall location, putting in plumbing, busting out walls, and installing beer refrigerators and proper cooling systems. Even today, they still adhere to the belief that “if you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself” – which led them to spend an entire day carving out the second room of their aforementioned beer cave. Expansion is a necessary evil, especially when you’re running a spot as popular as Lone Star. Rick must constantly think one step ahead – if he gets another beer shipment, where will he put the excess supplies? Will it require more shelving? How do you fill in shelf space when a distributor brings the wrong order or more or less of an expected shipment?
Since Friday is Lone Star’s big inventory day, I got to see first-hand how Rick copes with some of these distribution issues. The first big delivery arrived from Favorite Brands (expertly delivered in heels by Sales Manager Heather Gee) and quickly filled much of the available floor space in the middle of the store. Once the merchandise is inside, Rick has to act quickly to organize and assess the collection. He pulled one bottle out of each box to photograph and share on social media (a shout-out to the beer nerds of the newest gems in stock), while Sam worked on creating custom tags for each new beer. Part of the job of a beer store owner is educating the customers, and Sam and Rick go out of their way to make individual beer tags that include a beer’s IBUs with a hop taste scale, color SRM, what glass to serve the beer in, and even a food pairing guide. Not long after they’ve finished processing these cases, another delivery truck arrived with yet another big shipment. This time it’s a Ben E. Keith delivery, and it’s back to the scramble/post/tag routine, this time on an even larger scale as cases piled up across the store.
Appropriately, Lone Star ends each week with a free Friday craft beer tasting, a way to bring both old and new friends to the store to sample and learn about a few new beers. Rick lets his employees run his tastings, and generally tries to find beers that will appeal to a broad audience (and yes, even to those who come into the store to buy a macrobrew). “We are constantly educating people about things they aren’t aware of, and we have a wealth of knowledge at the shop,” said Rick. “Having Bud and Miller is a great catalyst that brings people into the store and allows me to change minds – my goal is to convert someone to craft beer every day, whether I have to buy a bottle of beer off the shelf myself for them to sample.” I watched as Rick and his employees chatted with folks on a first-name basis, and made an effort to learn the names of new customers that entered the store. This superior level of customer service contributes to the store’s high rate of return shoppers; in fact, many make the trip to Dallas solely to visit his store. Rick shared a story with me about a craft beer fan who rerouted an international flight destination from Houston to Dallas because of Lone Star Beverages’ reputation. During the day, I met a couple from Kansas City who doesn’t consider a trip to Dallas complete without a visit to Lone Star.
By the end of the day, I could truly say I felt like part of the “Lone Star family.” So if you’re looking for a “home away from home” kind of craft beer store where people know your name and where the employees take pride in stocking the rarest and most extensive selection of craft beer in Dallas, I highly suggest you join me as I make the necessary pilgrimage to Lone Star to find more awesome beer to squeeze into my overstocked fridge. After all, who needs room for food when there’s so much good beer to be had?