After driving by Preston Liquor for the past year and a half on his way to work at Crenlo in Rochester and thinking, “I should buy that,” Joe Lafreniere finally “called my own bluff,” as he put it, and signed an agreement to purchase the liquor store. Lafreniere officially closed the sale on March 27.
Lafreniere grew up in Preston, but he, his wife Marsha, and their five-year-old daughter now live in a rural home just north of Harmony.
Lafreniere says he doesn’t have any direct experience in running a retail liquor operation, “Other than I really like beer,” he joked. Musing on how he ended up owning a liquor store, he quipped, “If I had to take a step into retail it would either be something to do with motorcycles or liquor,” he said, noting that both were passions of his. Lafreniere knows quite a bit about craft beers and will bring that experience to the sales floor. He is also a big fan of Harley Davidson motorcycles.
Despite his inexperience with retail, he is eager to take over the reins at Preston Liquor after 19 years doing welding and fabricating work at Crenlo. Thinking about what prompted him to purchase the liquor store, Lafreniere stated,” I just wanted to get out of my job and make my own money instead of somebody else’s.”
Lafreniere says there’s a lot to like about Preston Liquor. “It’s small, it’s local. It has a pretty good location, in my opinion,” said Lafreniere. “There are a lot of seasonal campgrounds around. Kind of touristy, a lot of trout stuff that will bring people through there quite often,” Lafreniere added.
Lafreniere doesn’t plan to change much at the store. “If things go well, in the future I’d like to make it a little bigger. Other than that…it’s pretty good the way it is,” he said.
Initially, Lafreniere plans to run the business by himself with occasional assistance from his wife. “I need to get all the figures and the finances in order to see what actually is going on and then I plan to hire outside help. I just need to know how many hours I can afford to farm out,” he noted.
Lafreniere takes over Preston Liquor shortly after Governor Dayton signed a bill allowing Sunday liquor store sales beginning in July. “I think (Sunday sales) will be a good thing,” Lafreniere said. “It’ll be another day to generate income, maybe not so much in the winter, but I think the summer will be a good money maker some day. I’m surprised how many of the local people, and the campgrounds (residents) and stuff are going down to Cresco or Burr Oak to get their liquor on Sunday. Now they can just do it locally.”
Lafreniere purchased the store from Rhonda Wangen and her son Chad. The Wangen family has owned the business for approximately 26 years. Despite the fact that he didn’t officially take over the business until March 27, Lafreniere began showing up for work at Preston Liquor on March 20 to “learn the processes” of running the store. “She (Rhonda Wangen) gave me a whole week of training and then anything that I need beyond that, she’ll help me with,” Lafreniere said.
Rhonda and her husband, Bob, purchased Preston Liquor in 1990. At that time the business was located in downtown Preston. Describing the circumstances leading to the purchase of the liquor store, Rhonda recalled, “I was a part-time hairdresser. Then I started working for LaVerne and Shirley Dahl (prior owners of Preston Liquor) and I knew they really wanted to sell the store. We came up with a deal…and my husband and I became our own bosses. It was a lot of hours to start with. It takes time to get to know everything,” Rhonda said.
In 2002 Rhonda’s son Chad sold a bar he owned and became joint owner of the liquor store, at which time Rhonda left to work for JCPenney salon. The liquor store was run by Chad and his father for a number of years. When Rhonda was laid off from JCPenney, she returned to work at the store with Chad. “We’ve taken turns running the business,” she laughed.
In 2005 the Wangens moved the business to its current site on Highway 52, next door to the Preston Tourism Office. The Wangens converted what had been a drive-in restaurant (Meathead’s) to the new home of Preston Liquor. “It only took me six months to talk them into doing it (moving to the Highway 52 location),” teased Chad, noting his parents’ reluctance to move the business. “Well, when you have one (store) paid for it’s kind of hard to go in debt again,” Rhonda laughed. After the move to Highway 52, liquor store sales went up about 40%, Chad recalled.
Rhonda says she will most miss the day-to-day interactions with the people she dealt with. “Some of the same salesmen I’ve had for years, the drivers. We get a lot of tourists, a lot of campers from out of town. They come back every year. You get to the point where you remember them because you see them every summer,” she said. While Rhonda will miss her recurring customers and trades people, she expects a lot of customers will miss her father, Orvey Peterson, who has filled in at the liquor store on and off for over 15 years. Peterson will be remembered for calling all the girls “honey” and all the guys “pard” (short for “pardner”). “He’s 85 now, so he can’t remember their names, so everybody is ‘pard,’” she chuckled. “He’s one who if (a customer) is pissed off he can talk them out of it,” Chad added.
Thinking back on her 26 years at Preston Liquor, Rhonda recalled several particularly memorable events. In the ‘90s, a group of minors, having stolen a vehicle in Iowa, drove to Preston with the notion to steal another. “The sheriff’s office called me,” she recalls, and asked “Rhonda, is your car out front?” She looked out the window and realized, that, no, indeed it was not. Evidently, after the teens stole her car, they filled up at a gas station and drove off without paying on their way to the Twin Cities. The license plate number of the drive-off was identified by the station attendants who contacted the sheriff. The hooligans continued on to the Twin Cities before they were apprehended. Rhonda then had to drive all the way to the Cities and pay to retrieve the car from an impound lot. Another unusual incident occurred in the early 2000s when, during a winter storm, her husband Bob and a trucker who did deliveries for their store both had to spend the night in the liquor store because Highway 52 was totally closed due to a blizzard. Rhonda also recalled the time in 2014 that the liquor store sold a $200,000 winning lottery ticket to a local Preston man. Chad commented on the most recent unforgettable memory, which occurred just two months ago when thieves broke into Preston Liquor. The odd thing, he noted, was, “When they broke in they didn’t take any booze, they just took $100 worth of change.”
Rhonda noted that the biggest obstacle for the business to overcome over the years has been pricing competitively against the larger liquor stores. Big stores buy in bulk and get volume discounts not available to a store the size of Preston Liquor.
What’s next for Rhonda Wangen? “I’m taking the summer off for sure. I might look for something part-time after that,” she said. Chad will continue to work at the Lanesboro School District, where he has served as the Transportation Director since 2015.
When asked what advice she would give to the new owner, Rhonda stated, “Be Friendly…appreciate your customers. Even if someone comes in in a bad mood. If you’re friendly, a lot of times you can turn their bad mood into a good mood before they walk out the door.”