This story was originally published for Heavy Table subscribers in the Tap newsletter on July 8, 2022. Back the Heavy Table on Patreon to subscribe.
“I want people to be happy.” That’s how Matt Kenevan wants shoppers to feel at the new Dabbler Depot, which opened June 17 at 1545 West 7th Street in St. Paul. Even in the parking lot, there are clues that this could be the happiest liquor store in town, starting with the giant doughnut by the front door (to advertise the on-site coffee and doughnut shop). Once you walk inside, you’re greeted by a free-standing Hamm’s Bear, whose body language telegraphs: “Come on in, pal!”
There’s a rainbow-striped painted floor just past the giant Price is Right-style wheel you can spin to win discounts and freebies from local businesses. In case you’re expecting to leave with more than an increase in your personal happiness, there’s a joyfully curated selection of beers, wines, and spirits with a focus on craft beers, regional distillers, and not-ubiquitous wines. The Dabbler Depot already feels like a destination retailer, worth traveling across town or even across state lines to patronize.
Kenevan, the force behind the thrice-annual Beer Dabbler festivals, the much-missed Growler magazine, a tap trailer rental operation, and a business that builds custom tap huts, is passionate about beer, community, and teaching himself new things. And he seems sincerely delighted that the Dabbler Depot afforded him and his crew a huge opportunity for learning. “I can’t tell you how many people in the industry offered to help us out so we could be more of a conventional liquor store or just said flat-out, ‘that’s not the way it’s done.’ We didn’t want to do things the way they’ve always been done, like selling half-pints and cigarettes. We only have one staff person who has liquor store experience, and the rest of it has been us figuring things out.”
As you might expect, the beer selection is prodigious, and what’s really outside the conventional liquor store box is that all the beer is kept in the coolers for maximum freshness and displayed according to type, not brand – arranged from lighter beers to darker – to make it easier to find your preferred style. Beyond beer, the Depot’s three buyers, with input from weekly all-staff product tastings, have assembled a thoughtfully curated wine selection. And the store also showcases the growing local and regional community of distilleries along with liquor and aperitifs from around the world.
BUILDING SOMETHING LOCAL
With fewer than ten staff, chances are good that you’ll talk to one of those buyers while shopping so you can tap their exceptional product knowledge and get recommendations tailored to your specific tastes. You might not find Barefoot Chardonnay or low-end vodka or many beers that fall outside the realm of “craft brewing,” but staff are well prepared and eager to help you find a new potential favorite beverage.
Kenevan (above) is proud that all employees are full-time and receive a fair wage plus benefits. And he’s especially passionate about wanting people to consider the impact their spending choices have. “I want people to understand that every dollar a human spends, matters,” he says. “If you want to make a better community, keep your money local, and be conscious of the impact your choices have. I’m not saying everyone needs to spend their money here, but please spend it with a local business and not a national chain or giant retailer.”
National studies of the economic impact of small locally owned businesses have quantified the effect that consumers’ spending choices have on a community’s economic health. One often-cited metric is that while only 14 cents of every dollar spent at a chain retailer stays local, an average of 48 cents per dollar spent at a local business stays in the community. In addition, while Amazon creates 19 jobs for every $10 million in sales, local retailers provide 47 jobs per $10 million in sales generated.
This idea of “better choices” covers several other features inside and outside the store. The building sports an array of solar panels that help offset the energy needed to run the store’s coolers – and, as an added benefit, the cooler condensation is used to irrigate the store’s green wall. For Kenevan, these green efforts are not just cool additions to the decor, they’re the right thing to do. Lowering the store’s carbon footprint, offering good coffee and pie from Keys Bakery, paying livable wages: they’re all part of Kenevan’s vision of making more people happy and doing right by the community.
A LIQUOR STORE, A CAFE, A WINE STORE … A CONTENT STUDIO?
Kenevan says he wants the Dabbler Depot to be a real amenity and neighborhood gathering space – not just a liquor store. When asked how he plans to support this goal, he points first to the coffee shop, which features Madison, WI roaster Rusty Dog’s coffee beans along with doughnuts from the Donut Hut and slices of pie from Keys. “It’s a way to say we’re not just here to sell beer and wine; we want the neighbors to come by, grab a cup of coffee, and hang out on the patio.” Kenevan and crew have plans to build a permanent food truck on site in order to extend their offerings beyond coffee and pastries. He’s also excited to build relationships with other local businesses.
The Dabbler Depot grew out of Kenevan’s desire to start an online store, primarily for people to be able buy the beers they tried and loved at the Beer Dabbler festivals. The plan was that attendees would scan a QR code at the vendor’s booth, place an order, and have the beer shipped to them or ready to be picked up post-festival.
Then came the pandemic. The Growler relied heavily on revenues from advertisers in the food and beverage industry. Once advertisers felt the pandemic pinch, so did the Growler. In June 2020, Kenevan made the difficult decision to discontinue the publication, at a time when the Dabbler festivals had also been on hiatus for a year. After a period of healing and reinventing his businesses (during which he chopped and donated wood for independent breweries and encampments of unhoused people), Kenevan started a “Dabbler in a Box” monthly beer sampler program in partnership with Surdyk’s (who received half the revenue). The revenue split led him to consider opening his own retail store. The availability of pandemic small business loans made the bricks-and-mortar idea more possible. Once Kenevan found a space (the former Stransky’s Liquor Store), it was time for another huge learning opportunity: navigating the often byzantine regulations that apply to off-sale beer, wine, and liquor retailers.
St. Paul requires that liquor stores be located at least a half-mile apart and an initial site under consideration turned out to be less than that half-mile away from another liquor store. The number of liquor licenses available can be extremely limited. When Kenevan and his team started to plan for their store, there were only five liquor licenses available in the entire city, adding another layer of uncertainty to the enterprise. Once the site was identified, Kenevan was given a list of eighteen neighborhood residents who owned the homes closest to the proposed location. He was told he needed to gather signatures of support from them. Kenevan says going door-to-door to gather the signatures “seemed like a lot of time to spend on the process, but I got the chance to meet and talk to all these people and listen to their concerns. It was really valuable. While I was door-knocking, I met several people who just came out to talk to me and wanted to volunteer their signatures, even though they weren’t in the target group.” As a result of the successful door-knocking campaign, he’s now part of the neighborhood email list and gets invited to periodic happy hours (selling beer probably has something to do with that one).
The Dabbler Depot has been open for less than a month, and not unexpectedly, Kenevan has a long list of plans and ideas for the future. The store has its own purpose-built content creation studio, where staff can make videos, podcasts, and more for the online store that’s in the works, and highlight new or unique products via social media. It’s a practical way to keep the costs of producing Dabbler Depot content in-house. Kenevan also plans to open the studio to the community of craft brewers, distillers, and winemakers that he has helped to nurture, and use it to host tastings and events. The store’s tap wall, currently used to provide two-ounce samples, is ready to deploy for growler filling, when/if such sales are approved. There’s also that food truck to build, along with getting ready for the Summer Dabbler in its new Harriet Island location, set for Friday, August 26. After that? Kenevan says, “I really want to close off a whole mile of a city street for about a month in the wintertime and set it up as a snow-tube ride.”
If anyone can make that happen, it’s Matt Kenevan. It’s all part of his drive to make people a little bit happier.
Dabbler Depot, 1545 7th St W, St Paul, 651.802.2112, Mon-Thu 10am-8pm, Fri-Sat 10am-9pm, Sun CLOSED