Sophisticated Taste

by John Branston
Memphis Magazine, November 2003



The five expansions at Buster's Liquors over the last four decades are easy to trace -
just look at the changing floor tiles, which indicates where a wall used to be. The shopping carts, busy checkout clerks, and walls of shelves bulging with bottles indicate that this is the largest volume dealer of wine and spirits inTennessee.

Three generations of Hammonds have run the business since it was founded by Buster Hammond in 1954. Several years ago, Buster Hammond, now 93, turned it over to his son Rommy, 63, who operates with his sons, Morgan, 35, and Josh, 33, and Josh's twin sister Anastasia.

The Hammonds credit their location near the corner of Poplar and Highland - convenient to the University of Memphis, East Memphis, and Midtown - for much of their success. Good management, of course, has played a big part, too. As consumer tastes changed from whiskey to wine and distributors presented a bewildering variety of new products, each generation ofHammonds brought something new and valuable to the business that will gross $11 million in 2003.

Buster Hammond started in the retail grocery business with a partner, Tom Kirk. Their three stores were among the first to open on Sundays. But the partnership deteriorated, and lore has it that a coin flip left Buster out of the deal. He opened his first liquor store on Bellevue in South Memphis.

After stints at Ole Miss and in the army, Romulus 'Rommy' Hammond borrowed $50,000 from Joseph Hyde of the Malone and Hyde grocery business and opened his own liquor store in the Sterlick Building downtown in 1967. The next year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and the decline of downtown accelerated. The Hammonds sold Rommy's store, consolidated, and moved to their current location in 1970. In the process, they "broke the liquor line" which required all liquor stores to be inside the parkways.

"I said, if there is ever going to be a superstore in Memphis, it's going to be on this corner right here," says Rommy.

Wine drinkers above the age of say, 50, will remember graduating from beer and Boone's Farm to such blasts from the past as Taylor's port, Mateus rose, Mogen David, Manischewitz and Blue Nun. Terms such as "bouquet" and "finish" still applied to the flowers and woodworking, and snooty wine critics were hard pressed to get their labors into print.

The floodgates of fancy verbiage and fancy wet goods would open wide in the Eighties and Nineties.

"When I started, people were just starting to drink wine," says Rommy. "Now it's 60 percent of our business. There used to be two or three single-malt scotches. Now there are 150 or more plus 75-100 rums, 100 vodkas, 100 tequilas at up to $200 or more a bottle."

Rommy, a good tennis player and golfer and an excellent bowler, drinks in moderation, doesn't even have a wine cellar at home, and scoffs at pretentiousness.

"Everybody talks about the chilled wine room in their store. That is all bull - 68 degrees or 58 degrees, it doesn't make any difference. My children can tell you the obscure facts. I say if it smells good and it tastes good, drink it. I'm not going to analyze it. Whatever is in my glass at the time is my favorite wine."

Sophisticated tastes have driven the average sale to about $40 per customer. More than 70 percent of customers are women. Wine has a much higher mark-up than liquor, where margins are generally 7-12 percent. Buster's is open 90 hours a week, including until 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Rommy, who is still in the store a couple of hours a day, keeps a daily customer count going back to the Seventies in a ledger book in a desk drawer.

"I get worried when it goes down," he says. "On average we have about 5,000 customers a week."

Buster Hammond was a stern taskmaster, and Rommy imparted some of that to his children.

"I started here right out of business school at the University of Alabama," says Josh. "I came home from school and Dad was in the bedroom. I said, 'I want you to know I turned in my last paper, took my last test, and attended my last class. I've officially graduated.' He says, 'Well, what are you gonna do?'"

Josh suggested he might take some time off to find himself.

"Find yourself?" Rommy exploded. "You have been on vacation for five years. You can find yourself at the store at eight in the morning."

When Josh protested that the next day was Saturday, Rommy countered, "busiest day of the week."

"I would say it's been trying and rewarding," says Josh. "For the most part,Hammonds can be very stubborn people. We have to have a lot of patience with each other, and that doesn't always shine through."

Josh's expertise is in technology and scanners. He's usually up at the front of the store. Morgan is more apt to be in the backroom and does the ordering and deals with the salesmen. Anastasia is the newest family member to join the business.

"When we were picking out our new computer system, the store had only four or five computers working at a time," says Josh. "There were just two computers in the backroom. The new system we bought had 12 PCs and five of them were going to be registers. Dad and Morgan both said why do we need all these computers? My point was I saw growth potential in our business. It eventually sped up our efficiency and customer service."

Josh would like to expand to East Memphis, but Rommy, who can tick off a number of "plush" liquor stores with higher rent and lower volume, has prevailed so far.

"I slowly but surely convinced him that all you are doing is doubling your headaches and not necessarily increasing your bottom line," says Rommy. "Our growth rate here is 8 to 10 percent a year. I told Josh money isn't any good if you don't have time to spend it. Either the business runs you or you run the business."

Of course that may not be the last word on the subject. As his father did 35 years ago, Rommy is slowly relinquishing control of Buster's to his children. The mismatched tile on the floor suggests they won't sit still forever.


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