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Originally published October 29, 2012 at 8:08 PM | Page modified October 30, 2012 at 11:06 AM

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BevMo testing the water in Washington

BevMo will debut in Bellevue on Nov. 9 and at Northgate on Nov. 16 — followed by stores in Ballard and Bellingham scheduled for February.

Seattle Times business reporter

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BevMo executives used to doubt the power of their brand in Washington.

The chain is well known in California, home to most of its nearly 130 stores, but Washington — off-limits for decades to private liquor retailers — was a question mark.

“You’re always worried about, are people even aware of what BevMo is when you open in a new state?” said CEO Alan Johnson.

As BevMo prepares to debut in Bellevue on Nov. 9 and at Northgate on Nov. 16 — followed by stores in Ballard and Bellingham scheduled for February — Johnson no longer worries.

“The awareness of our brand is a lot higher than I actually thought,” Johnson said.

His first inkling came when transplants from California who used to work for BevMo there applied to work at BevMo’s first Washington stores — in Tacoma, Silverdale and Tukwila. The Tacoma store opened in June, shortly after the state privatized its liquor business in compliance with an initiative voters passed last fall.

Johnson’s second clue came at the Tacoma grand opening, where hundreds of people stood in line, including a man who pitched a tent out front the night before — for nothing more than a goody bag and an early glimpse of the store.

Exhibit 3 was at the September opening in Tukwila, where a couple asked to be married.

Johnson officiated the ceremony in the parking lot, while hundreds of customers lined up outside, sipping sparkling fruit juice and snapping pictures.

No weddings are planned for the Bellevue or Northgate openings.

The typical BevMo is a 10,000- to 12,000-square-foot store packed with wine, beer, liquor and specialty foods, including caviar and an array of 40-plus old-fashioned root-beer brands.

Although liquor prices are generally above what consumers used to pay at Washington’s state-run stores, spirits sales have been higher than BevMo expected, Johnson said.

He declined to give sales figures, or to say how much BevMo pays distributors for liquor here compared with California. “I wish it was lower; I always wish it was lower,” he said.

BevMo is not buying liquor directly from distilleries, although the new law —which Costco Wholesale wrote — allows that.

“We owe Costco a thank you,” Johnson said. “We have a healthy respect for that company and what they achieved in Washington.”

Its newest locations are in former state-run liquor stores in Bellevue and at Northgate.

Mehrit Teshome, who paid $175,100 at auction to apply for the right to apply for a license to run the Northgate store, said that location was too big and its rent too high. She is negotiating for a smaller space nearby and does not worry about competing with BevMo.

“You have to see it like 7-Eleven and Safeway,” she said.

A group of small liquor-store owners who have been competing with big stores since June see it differently.

A new 17 percent fee on retail liquor sales hurts small stores disproportionately, argues Jasmel Sangha, of Olympia. He bought the rights for a store in Belfair but has not opened it because the landlord promised a nearby Safeway not to let in a competitor.

Sangha is president of the recently formed Washington Liquor Store Association, which is pushing for changes in the new law.

“There’s got to be some relief for the little guys,” he said.

Meanwhile, BevMo’s Johnson declined to say how many stores he might open eventually in Washington.

“I don’t even think I’ve put one wheel down on the runway,” he said.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com. Twitter @AllisonSeattle.

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