When Rami Barqawi opened his first Healthy Spirits store in the Castro in 1998, he never thought it would transform into a “destination” for high-end spirits.
Back then, Healthy Spirits was just a name, and the items on the shelves were pure convenience-store stock.
“It was butter and tampons and toilet paper,” he said.
But, several years after opening, Barqawi’s friend (and the future founder of City Beer) Craig Wathen came to him and said, “Rami, I see craft beer happening. I want to open a beer-only store.”
For Barqawi, the idea was crazy. His business was fueled by the everyday needs of the neighborhood. “Toilet paper, man,” he told Wathen. “Everyone wants milk.”
“Just beer,” Wathen insisted.
Barqawi was skeptical, but he slowly introduced craft beers to his store. Now, after almost two decades, Barqawi has three stores focused purely on craft spirits, and he’ll soon be opening his fourth store on the corner of 14th and Valencia streets.
“In retrospect, I regret that it took that long to subscribe to the program,” he said, noting that owes a lot to Wathen, who he has called a “force” of the craft movement.
We caught up with Barqawi to talk about business, how he got here and what he envisions for his fourth location, which he expects to open before Thanksgiving.
What was the most challenging moment of getting the store open?
The creek in my basement. There was running water. I think it’s a part of Mission Creek. There’s a beautiful basement. But as soon as you scratched the floor a little bit, the water just started running. We had to rip out the floor and install a drainage system. I had to dig the street, I had to dig the sidewalk.
The shop in Bernal Heights is agave-themed, the Castro has a whiskey theme and Clement Street is more beer-heavy. Where did you come up with the idea of having themed stores?
I heard the knocking of craft beer nine years ago when it was just beginning to emerge. I started to experiment with bringing the unique beers, with Belgian beers, with the Trappist beers.
Once I felt like I covered beer, I decided to take on another thing, which was brown spirits — whiskey was emerging. We’re living in renaissance times for everything that is beer and whiskey. And now I’m hearing the calling of agave. I’m seeing bars and restaurants that are agave-centric — mezcals — but I don’t see anybody retailing it to that level.
What theme will this store have?
I have the luxury of space here. I’m going to cover beer, bourbon and agave. As a matter of fact, I’m going to take on amaro. I’m not going to stake a position in it. I still have a lot to learn about agave, but I’m definitely on that wave.
Where did you get the idea for Healthy Spirits?
In today’s San Francisco, everyone is so busy and swamped that I think service is suffering.
I think my brand will represent a knowledgeable service, it will offer a great selection of everything that’s esoteric and hard to find. Like, you can geek out with my guys — you won’t be able to geek out with BevMo kids, for the most part. And the mom and pop, they’re selling the Budweisers. I’d like to be the next level up, the next level of service.
Why on Valencia?
It’s a gourmet ghetto, my friend. It’s an honor to be on Valencia. I’m so blessed to get this beautiful building. It’s such a majestic building.
How did you find this spot?
I got an inside tip that the place might be coming up for sale, so I went and approached everyone and closed the deal. The deal was consummated Jan. 1, 2016. We broke ground the same week as the Salesforce Tower. And look at me, I’m just barely getting ready to open the store.
What about the “clubs?”
So I started bringing tasting licenses to the stores. So far I’ve managed to get licenses for Clement and Cortland. For Valencia, they gave me a liquor store license here, but they wrote at end of license, no intensification of license. So I thought, ‘Don’t mess with it now,’ and then once I’m open, pursue some kind of educational or tasting license — something more. Maybe next week, when I have a brain cell and a moment.
The club is one of the best things I have in the shop. Members get a 10 percent discount on anything they buy from the store all the time. We curate the selection for them, and we give them detailed educational notes with the bottle. There’s no money to join, and you can opt out at any time. Furthermore, the only thing you pay for is the price of what you’re given, at a 10 percent discount.
Who is your clientele?
People who are generally interested in the art of the spirit itself. They’re not there to chug a six-pack. If you want to chug a six-pack, don’t come to me. Come if you want that special something, and you want to be taught. We really seek to educate.
Many of my stores are not so much a neighborhood store. Other stores service the neighborhood — I’m not really a convenience. In the early days of my business career in this business, I started as a convenience neighborhood bodega. I’ve evolved a little bit. I’m a little bit of a destination — a little bit.
What will you do with the basement downstairs?
It’s phase number two. It’s raw, but it makes a nice cellar. It makes a nice speakeasy. It’s valuable space. It’s raw, but it’s valuable space.