Lee’s Discount Liquor celebrates its 35th year here in Las Vegas. To some, it probably seems like just yesterday that Founder Mr. Lee opened his first shop near Spring Mountain and Jones. Lee’s has truly grown up with Las Vegas, sharing the best of times and the worst of times, and learning every step of the way.
What began as a small family owned business has evolved into a retail superpower, practically a household name across the Las Vegas Valley. It’s nearly impossible to drive through this city without passing one of their eye-catching billboards, or one of their 19 locations. But Lee’s is still family-owned and run, and it’s this endearing aspect that’s allowed Lee’s to retain its mom-and-pop feel even as it continues to expand.
“The community really embraces us. They know we’re the local company and we’ve grown up with them. Lee’s as a brand resonates with Las Vegas,” said President Kenny Lee. Kenny still refers to his father, as Mr. Lee.
Lee’s doesn’t do business on the family name alone, however. Lee’s is the largest liquor retailer in Las Vegas, and a critical aspect of its business is variety…often more variety than its customers could imagine.
“We have more than 18,000 SKU’s,” Kenny began. “To compare, Costco would carry 500 SKU’s in its beer, wine and liquor section. [Costco] carries around four vodkas. We carry more than 1,000. We try to carry everything. That’s what distinguishes us from the rest.”
Lee’s carries more than 9,000 wines as well, sourcing from six continents [Antarctica doesn’t produce wine]. Add in 2,000 beer SKU’s to round out an inventory that people will have trouble finding elsewhere. Kenny called out Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits as a big help in growing their selection.
“They are certainly our biggest distributor,” Kenny said. “[Southern] carries all the brands that the restaurants serve, as opposed to just the supermarket brands. Larry Ruvo really cares for us, values us as a local partner.”
When asked to reflect on 35 years of solid success, Kenny immediately defers to his father’s hard work and perseverance.
“It’s quite an achievement that my father has earned. It’s hard for a business to survive for 35 months, let alone 35 years,” said Kenny. “We’ve seen hotels come and go in that time. To have a business that has become a staple to this city, that shows the work ethic of Mr. Lee…I am so proud of him.”
The journey was far from easy. Lee’s was practically born out of necessity—the product of an immigrant entrepreneur finding a way to maneuver around the language barrier.
Mr. Lee immigrated to the US from Seoul, South Korea in 1980. He came from a steady job with the Central Government of Korea, but moved his family overseas because he wanted a better education for his children [Kenny and his sisters, Annie and Tina]. His intentions were to settle in New York to open a dry cleaning business, but he made an initial stop in Las Vegas because he had family who lived here.
Mr. Lee did complete that trip to New York, but was back in Las Vegas a month later. The laundry business simply wasn’t for him. Knowing virtually no English, he found it very difficult to interact with customers. He made ends meet by doing odd jobs, hindered all the while with face-to-face interaction being such a big obstacle.
Then, came the ‘aha!’ moment, in a most unexpected setting. Still in his first year in Las Vegas, Mr. Lee walked into a liquor store to buy a bottle of Johnny Walker Black.
“The cashier just told him how much it was and he paid for it,” said Kenny. “[Mr. Lee] couldn’t believe how easy it was to do business like that.”
With that bottle of scotch, a business came to be.
“He opened his first store on the west side, around Spring Mountain and Jones. He called it
A Plaza Liquor,” Kenny said. “He wanted it to be the first one in the phone book.”
The first store got off to a decent start, but Mr. Lee was completely new to running a retail storefront and sought to beat the learning curve. He utilized his small network to find the right kind of business model.
“A friend told him about a store in Denver, so [Mr. Lee] flew down to see how the place operated,” Kenny said. “The owner of that store told him that the money was in the discount volume business. He told him to sell cigarettes at cost and have the lowest prices in your neighborhood for liquor, wine and beer.”
Business took off from there. The first store did so well that Mr. Lee opened a second location, on Flamingo and Pecos. More stores opened from there, and then it came time for Mr. Lee to bring Kenny into the family business.
“I grew up always helping out with the business. Low overhead was [Mr. Lee’s] key thing. Every break, every holiday I would come to help,” Kenny said. “We had a printing store right next door. The owner there would hand-draw advertising flyers for us and would make hundreds of copies. Me, my two sisters and father would get up at 4 a.m. and hang flyers from door to door.”
“Initially I was in college to be an optometrist, but when I was a sophomore my father called to ask me to join the family business,” Kenny said. “I took a few days to think about it, then switched my major to business management. I started from the bottom, from stocking to cashier, then ran a store and became a VP in 1998, then eventually president.”
The momentum continues to go strong, with Lee’s set to do more than $100 million in gross sales in 2016. They are strategic in selecting new locations as well—not expanding for the sake of expanding, but growing stores to grow the bottom line.
“My father maps out the whole city,” Kenny said. “He works very closely with a realtor. When looking for a new store [location] he sees how many homes are built around the area, the average income and other demographics.”
And once they do decide on a location, it’s built to last.
“We buy the land and build our own buildings. We own all of our own real estate except
Lee’s has since expanded beyond Las Vegas’s borders, with a store in Mesquite and more external locations upcoming.
“Our next store will be West Wendover, 5 hours north from here. It’s 80 minutes from Salt Lake City. The West Wendover store will hopefully open in 2017.”
Lee’s proximity to Salt Lake City gives them access to an enormous market. Utah’s liquor laws are significantly different from those in Nevada, and Lee’s is positioning itself to take full advantage. Their Mesquite store is currently their best-performing location in terms of volume: proof of concept for tracking areas of high demand and low supply.
But it’s far from smooth sailing for the business as a whole. Increased competition threatens to take away from Lee’s market share, but Lee’s is still confident that business will remain strong in Las Vegas.
“Total Wine has three locations. Costco and Smith’s are expanding in the liquor business…more supermarkets and big box stores, but as long as the economy stays healthy, there’s plenty of business for everybody,” Kenny said. “We’re also competing with the hotels for employees, and we can’t pay like the hotels do. Finding good people is a challenge, but when we find good people we try to keep them.”
And while Lee’s family-owned feel and extravagant selection are key differentiators, their advertising truly stands out. Their billboards stand out so much, in fact, that Lee’s has been met with some controversy from parties who feel that their jokes on drinking cross the line.
“There’s always going to be people who don’t like our ads,” Kenny said. “When KLUC did an online poll about us, 85% of the people said that they knew we were just joking around. When you are in a city where you have mobile billboards with half-naked girls, it’s hard to believe that people would give us trouble for the stuff that we put on our signs.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Lee’s has a nonprofit [Lee’s Helping Hand] that has contributed more than $800,000 to local charities. Proceeds come from several tasting events that Lee’s puts on every year.
Kenny is also happy to say his family has expanded its business ventures into the restaurant world.
“My dad has always had the dream of owning a Korean restaurant. That place [Lee’s Korean BBQ] is packed. We went there the other night and couldn’t even get a table…at our own restaurant!” Kenny said.
“He loves talking to people. You can tell how much the community loves him.”
The Lee family has paved the way for remarkable transformation over the last 35 years, and Las Vegas is holding up a glass to 35 more.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.