Chaldean Waleed Daoud arrived in Detroit in 1976. "Lots of Chaldeans own stores there," he says, "and so I worked in a liquor store, learned a little about wines. Then I got a job in a wine shop in West Bloomfield, which is sort of like La Jolla is here. I was probably 19 or 20 and I could barely speak English, but I worked for this old gentleman, Sidney. He had retired but come back to work because he had a passion for the business. People were coming in, buying these German Rieslings that were $80 — back in 1976. I said, 'I don't even know what to say,' and he said, 'No problem; you be my shadow. Don't be shy; just stand there.' I would just watch him work."
The passion for the business rubbed off. A year or so later, Daoud hopped over to the distributor's side — a whippersnapper in an old-timer's world, shaking things up a bit. "Back then, a wine salesperson was 50, 60 years old. These guys had been there 20, 30 years; they'd built up their own locations. They'd go in, say hi, sit for half an hour. They didn't want to start new accounts. My thing was, 'If somebody's not selling our wine, I'll approach them.' I was jumping around between stores, making deals — shops, restaurants, everywhere. Within two months, I was the number-one salesman in the company, and it wasn't because of my knowledge. It was my effort. I was money-hungry, and I was enjoying it."
All that changed when the company got bought up by a larger distributor. Suddenly, it was "'This is your territory, this block to that block. You can't go just anywhere. You have to go with a general manager to reset this account.' We had meetings every Friday, and they cut the commission." Daoud headed back to retail, eventually developing an affinity for the gourmet grocery market.
The year 1990 brought him to the West Coast, and he set up shop in Imperial Beach. "I was managing a smaller location at 13th and Coronado, one with very little wine, and I was buying from Unified Grocers. Fleming Companies wanted my account; the rep kept asking, 'What do we need to do?' When his bosses bought the Big Bear in the shopping center at Ninth and Palm, the Fleming rep found the carrot he needed to lure Daoud: the company decided to act as a financing partner for independent grocers, who would operate under Fleming's IGA program. He said, 'I'll offer you another store.'" Daoud said okay.
Then, when the shopping center itself got bought and remodeled, Daoud saw his chance to go upscale. "Nobody was catering to the high-end customers. There is a high-end population here that nobody was attending. Everybody was cutting throats, giving stuff away just to bring the customer in, and nobody was looking at the other side. I decided to separate myself, but it was a risk — I spent over half a million dollars remodeling the store. You don't know if the upscale customer is going to drive from Coronado to IB." While he was at it, he decided to try getting back into the winey end of the business. "I started with an eight-gondola of wines, and maybe two more smaller ones — maybe about 32 linear feet of wine. I said, 'If I double the sales, I'm going to give it another 8 feet.' Now, an entire 64 feet is wine, plus the gondolas. Customers come from Coronado and Bonita and El Cajon; we have some that come from Del Mar to buy wine from us. The word is getting out."
The word is not so much that Wally's has Joseph Phelps Insignia (though he sometimes does) as it is that Wally's hits the $10-$20 sweet spot. "We're selling a lot of those wines; it's what people are drinking every day. And the other thing we're doing is training our customers on more esoteric wines — smaller wineries that give you more value for the money. You can buy much better wine for $12--$15 if nobody knows about it" — that is, if it doesn't (yet) have the score or the demand to ratchet up the price. The lineup still skews Californian, but despite the dollar's poor performance against the Euro, Daoud is still finding excellent values from France — $12 Bordeaux, $8 Côte-du-Rhônes. "We tasted it, and we believed in it, and so we recommend it to our customers. It's a trust that you build between your wine specialist and your customers."
Once the trust is there, being esoteric becomes an advantage instead of a hindrance. "Wine is a conversation piece, like a piece of art. You want to talk about it — 'Oh, I found this gem; it's a really good value.' You can take the credit for being the discoverer." And Daoud & Co. help to encourage that adventurous spirit. "We don't carry a lot of mass-produced wines, and the ones we do carry, we kind of hide on the bottom shelf. If somebody comes in and buys them repeatedly, I encourage my wine specialists to say, 'You're buying a K-J Cab for $15; let me show you what else you can get for that money.' Once you do that, you have a customer."
In Imperial Beach, Daoud's wine specialist is local wine veteran Frank Marquez. In Encinitas, it's David Derby. In La Jolla, it's Patrick Ballow. Derby is at Harvest Ranch Market; Ballow is working the floor at Jonathan's. Once Daoud's strategy started paying off in IB, he took his act on the road — the salesman back at work. "I'm friends with one of the owners. I felt they had all these gems, and they weren't doing that great with their wine programs. At Jonathan's, they had built up a customer base, and they were maintaining sales. A few people who had big money wanted certain wines. When a wine salesman would come in, they would know what, say, Mr. Smith was buying, and they would buy only that."
Daoud told his friend, "'I think I can do a better job, no charge,'" and he got the green light. He hired wine specialists for each store in the Harvest Ranch chain and started bringing the team to meetings with vendors. "You've got to be part of the process to recommend a wine. We taste them, grade them by committee, and decide what we want to bring in. If you are the wine specialist, you voted for the wine, you're committed to it. And you also tasted it; you know how to explain it to the customer." He pushed them to proliferate the shelf-talkers -- "It's your personality when you're not there." Sales have responded by jumping nicely.
As for the old guard, "I'm trying to baby-sit those longtime customers even more -- we have all their wines, and we're recommending more to them — but at the same time, I'm catering to a whole new customer base. We're doing wine tastings at Jonathan's on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, wine dinners out on the patio. We're trying to bring in more people, get them involved and asking questions. The more we educate them, the better the wines we can sell them. We definitely think we're skewing a lot younger."