80 Years of Peco’s

Dan Linehan

, Uncategorized

From jug wine to craft beer, these fourth-generation liquor store owners adapt and survive. This month, they celebrate a milestone.

Peco’s Liquors enjoyed its proudest moments during its most trying hours.

In May 1986, an electrical fire devastated the family-owned liquor store in the Penny Hill area of north Wilmington. Nourished by the store’s flammable liquor, the blaze should have knocked the store out of commission for half a year, at the very least.

But from the beginning, owner Frank Gazzillo resolved to beat that timeline. He never lost his cool, grandson Ed Mulvihill remembers.

“Everybody was so willing to line up and do him a favor,” Mulvihill says, beaming. For a guy who didn’t get out much —14-hour days at the shop were typical—Gazzillo had built strong relationships.

He even found a connection for, of all things, structural steel. It ended up being over-sized for their needs (Mulvihill jokes their foundation could hold up a skyscraper) but the store was open by Labor Day.

And those relationships—along with innovation and community involvement—have sustained Peco’s, a fourth-generation business, amid growing corporate competition.
Their 80th anniversary party, to be held on Saturday, June 25, is a way to thank customers and employees while paying homage to Peco’s history. It will be tinged with sadness, though.

Gazzillo and his wife, Rita, married for 59 years, died last year within two months of each other. They had run the store for more than 50 years.

“Together, what those two did was very impressive,” Mulvihill says. “The love and devotion never went away.”

The story of Peco’s Liquors is inseparable from that of the family, starting with the building itself. The store’s office is the family home’s former kitchen, and the whiskey room long ago took over the dining room.

Joseph and Rita Peco, in the general store that is now Peco's Liquors. (Photo courtesy of Peco's Liquors)

Joseph and Rita Peco, in the general store that is now Peco’s Liquors.
(Photo courtesy of Peco’s Liquors)

An Immigrant’s Story

That intertwining history began with Joseph Peco, Mulvihill’s maternal great-grandfather.

He emigrated to the United States in 1906 at the age of 15. He worked plenty of jobs, including driver of a horse-drawn carriage hauling beer barrels. He saved his money, but would need a final push to start his business.

That came after his marriage to Frances, whom he met during a trip back to Italy.
“She pushed him into it,” Mulvihill says.

They picked a location in what was then the fast-growing suburbs of Wilmington, along a Boston-to-Baltimore transportation corridor—Philadelphia Pike, or Route 13. The initial shop was small, about 400 square feet.

It was a general store, selling bread, milk and eggs along with alcohol. Around 1942, though, Peco had to choose between selling liquor or food.

As with the choice of location, his decision would be seen as prescient by his descendants.
Given the competition local grocers face, Mulvihill doubts Peco’s would have survived until today as a general store.

In 1963, Frank Gazzillo stands proudly in front of the store’s new fine wine selection. (Photo courtesy of Peco's Liquors)

In 1963, Frank Gazzillo stands proudly in front
of the store’s new fine wine selection. (Photo courtesy of Peco’s Liquors)

Passing the Baton

When Joseph Peco died in 1953, Frances took over the store for a few years. By 1956, day-to-day operation had passed to the man their daughter Rita had married, Frank Gazzillo.

A bricklayer and Korean War vet, Gazzillo began working at the store one fall as construction cooled off for the winter. It was supposed to be temporary, but he never left.

Mulvihill describes his grandfather—“Pop-Pop” to him—as the “kindest, gentlest, most generous person”—the type of guy with whom people felt close even if they saw him only occasionally.

For years he worked from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m., a sacrifice he made both because he enjoyed it, Mulvihill says, and because it helped his family.

Customer service was Frank Gazzillo’s calling card.

“It didn’t matter who you were. If you came through that door you were important,” Mulvihill says.

Frank and Rita were also lifelong members and patrons of St. Helena’s Roman Catholic Church, just a stone’s throw away. (Joseph and Frances Peco donated the church’s altar.)
The store would continue to expand into the family home while the business adapted to a changing industry.

By the early 1960s, customers were increasingly looking for fine wines instead of the jug wines of the past.

In a photo taken in 1963, Gazzillo is shown beaming in front of the store’s new selection of fine wines. It would be the picture that ran with his obituary, as he’d always wanted.

In those days, beer coolers were downstairs. So if a customer wanted a cold one, they’d have to ask Gazzillo to go down and grab one.

He learned customers wanted to pick their own beer, so he added coolers to the main floor. It was convenient, and added credibility to his “coldest beer on the Pike” boast.
It was that day-to-day interaction with customers that would give Peco’s an edge over the big-box competition looming on the horizon, Mulvihill says.

“As a local business owner, you get instant feedback,” he explains.

The Next Generation

In 1993, a cancerous tumor was discovered in Frank Gazzillo’s sinus cavity. Frank and Rita’s daughter, Francine, took what was supposed to be a six-month leave of absence to run the store.

But just as it did with her father, Francine Mulvihill’s temporary stay soon turned into something more.

“I could be with my kids,” she says, including Ed Mulvihill, then a year old. “I liked my flexibility.”

Gazzillo, his trademark confidence buoying him, made a full recovery, Ed Mulvihill says. Ever since, lymphoma and leukemia societies are frequent beneficiaries of Peco’s charity events.

Since the passing of Frank and Rita last fall, new family members have joined the company. David Gazzillo, Eric Gazzillo, and Kristen Gazzillo are shareholders and help out when they can.

New Owners, New Niches

Ed Mulvihill had been around the store his whole life, though he wasn’t allowed inside as a child. His grade-school memories consist of wheedling soda and bags of chips from Pop-Pop and building forts from the store’s empty boxes.

Unlike with his mother and grandfather, working at Peco’s was not a happy accident for Ed Mulvihill.

“This was the one thing I could see myself doing long-term,” he says. By 2007, he was working part-time, designing the website and helping out in other ways.

The ascendance of craft beers is by now an old story, but Mulvihill came of age just in time to ride the small-brew wave. He joined the store full-time in 2011, and decided to make Peco’s synonymous with craft beer.

“The thing that was going to make us stand out at that time was craft beer,” he says.
Today they have 500 varieties, enough to fill 10 coolers. Craft accounts for 75 percent of the store’s beer sales.

Milford-based Mispillion River Brewing has even brewed a bourbon-barrel aged stout—Peco’s Anniversary Stout—just for the store.

Intense Competition

Big-box competition has been the biggest modern disruption to family-owned retailers, and liquor is no exception. When Total Wine & More opened its flagship location 10 minutes away, sales at Peco’s fell, Mulvihill acknowledges.

That’s not to say he’s complaining.

Competition “forces you to be the best you can be,” he says.

For some products, Mulvihill pays suppliers more than what Total Wine charges customers. In other words, he can’t always win on price.

The challenge is Economics 101: If customers see your product as a commodity — as essentially no different from a competitor’s — they are likely to make purchasing choices on price alone. Few businesses relish price wars, and that’s especially true for small retailers.

From this vantage point, Mulvihill’s job is to convince his customers that the beer and spirits he sells are worth more, so to speak, than the alcohol sold by his competitors. It’s a tough task but not an impossible one. Consider the success of coffee shops.

Do customers really choose a $3.45 large (ahem, “trenta”) Starbucks coffee over a $1.79 large from McDonald’s because they think the coffee is twice as good?

In this analogy, Peco’s is like Starbucks. It has to sell service, and an experience. The service element has been a Peco’s hallmark for decades.

Customer Karyn Sundleaf says the staff are always happy to answer her wine questions. It’s not like that everywhere, she says. “At some places you feel like you’re in the way.”

Food Truck Friday on Steroids

One way to stand out from the crowd is to cultivate a distinctive image with customers. Holding events has proven to be Mulvihill’s most effective marketing tactic.

Chief among them is The Great Pumpkin Debate, a pumpkin beer tasting event held each September that regularly attracts hundreds of visitors. Started in 2011 amid a proliferation of pumpkin beer, the event is also a chance to give back, including to the Delaware Humane Association.

And the last Friday of every month is Food Truck Friday, when free samples, live music, and, yes, food trucks roll in. The 80th anniversary event, to be held from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. June 25, will be something of a Food Truck Friday on steroids, Mulvihill says.

It will also be an opportunity to announce the creation of the Frank and Rita Gazzillo Foundation, which will fund scholarships and community development programs.

Ed and Francine behind the state's first growler bar. (Photo Javy Diaz)

Ed and Francine behind the state’s first growler bar. (Photo Javy Diaz)

State’s First Growler Bar

In 2011, Mulvihill called state regulators to ask whether he could sell beer in growlers—refillable brown jugs—in his store. Though there was no law forbidding it, he was told state law would have to be amended to specifically allow growlers.

Fortunately, his state representative, Debra J. Heffernan, was also a customer. “She ran with it,” he says. The law passed in 2013, and Peco’s soon became the first retailer in the state to fill growlers.

As of mid-May, Peco’s growler bar offered 12 craft beers on tap.

More Expansion

It was about this time that Peco’s embarked on its most recent expansion. Mulvihill ran the idea by Frank and Rita Gazzillo, who were by this time in their 80s and spending less time at the store. They basically said that if he thought it was the right thing to do, they did too.

That sort of flexibility allows the business to change quickly.

Mike Neef, who works with the distributor Breakthru Beverage, says that makes it easier for a new flavor to catch on. Chain stores typically require that pitches for new products go to upper management, he says.

“Here, they say ‘yes’ and it’s in the store the next day,” he says. “They can take a chance on a new flavor here.”

The next big thing, Mulvihill says, is craft spirits. This sector, already expanding quickly, is positioned where craft beer was around 1990, he says.

It’s potentially lucrative; wine and spirits make up about 60 percent of Peco’s sales.
Another new product is tagging along: artisan mixers. A customer looking for a distinctive gin might also be interested in a unique tonic.

The store also recently added a product Mulvihill noticed on an episode of ABC’s reality-TV show Shark Tank, where entrepreneurs pitch ideas to investors: $10 cozies that fit around any liquor or beer bottle. They’re made by Freaker USA, a company whose off-beat brand shares a challenge with stores like Peco’s: finding a niche in a crowded market.

Inter-Generational Pride

When Mulvihill looks back on the years Rita and Frank ran the store, he thinks about how proud they were to be a part of the community.

Though he doesn’t say it, Mulvihill is clearly proud, too.

“We have been consistently blessed with employees who feel like friends and customers who feel like family,” he says.

Corny as it may sound, it comes off as genuine.

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