Inside Track: From a 7-Eleven to a successful Siciliano's Market
Steve Siciliano has done his part to spark a major local interest in craft beers and homebrewing.
Sitting at his desk among homebrew supplies and bottles of wine, Steve Siciliano tapped his glasses on his chin.
The desk sits in the middle of Sicliano’s Market, named Best Beer Grocery in the U.S. by RateBeer.com in January. But the Grand Rapids’ native is pensive when asked how his market, located at 2840 Lake Michigan Drive NW, stacks up against others.
“There’s better ones out there. We are a very good store,” he said, but then added, “There will be folks who come in here and say, ‘This is it?’ I’m aware of that. We’re just going to do the best things we can. We’re gonna build on this.”
The recent rating is a nod to the store he’s spent years building, but he’s not done yet.
Despite graduating from Michigan State University with a journalism degree in 1973 and then spending several years traveling as a marketing professional, in the 1980s Siciliano decided to buy a 7-Eleven franchise on Plainfield Avenue.
“I didn’t like the direction the (marketing) company was going and being away from home four days a week,” he said. “I always had an entrepreneurial spirit and started looking and found an advertisement, and it sounded kind of neat.”
He invested $5,000 in the franchise fee and another $5,000 in inventory. Running the Slurpee store was just the thing to set him on his career path, he said.
“I really enjoyed being a part of a community, and back then, 7-Elevens really were,” he said. “I learned a lot from that experience: customer service, how to run a business. Anyone who can get through that can get through anything.”
As he developed equity in the 7-Eleven, he began to seek a new location for a new venture. After five years of owning the 7-Eleven, he bought a convenience store in the Creston Heights neighborhood and changed its name to Siciliano’s Market. He and his first wife raised their sons in the neighborhood.
“(The market) gave them a lot of exposure to life,” he said. “With all the people coming in, it gave them great insight for young men.”
But after awhile, he began to develop an interest in the finer things in life — specifically, a love of good wine. That was a problem, as the Creston Heights location wasn’t suitable for selling fine wine. He began looking for another location.
In June 1993, he found a new home for his store on Lake Michigan Drive — the current location of Siciliano’s Market — in an old party store that was going out of business.
“I picked it up and it died for the next five years,” he said. “There were three hours between customers. It didn’t turn around in a hurry.”
That’s when Siciliano knew he needed to take desperate measures. He sought to make his store stand out in a market that was nonexistent: Siciliano’s became the first store in the area to promote craft beers — well before the current craze.
“I started getting some of these beers that no one else was selling and decided to sell them as singles, rather than six-packs. No one else was doing that. And soon we started to slowly develop a following because of the beer.”
His decision, he said, was fueled by the fear of failure. He struggled month to month, not knowing if he would be able to pay his rent. He said that these days, on a busy Saturday, he sees more customers in a day than he saw in a week back then.
Along with carrying craft beer came the idea of stocking homebrewing supplies — another fairly nonexistent niche in the area. He started with just 3 square feet of supplies, unsure of how it would sell.
“That was scary in the sense that I had to invest $300 I didn’t have, thinking, “Is this $300 I’m just throwing away?”
The investment paid off. Now Siciliano’s has more than 1,000 square feet dedicated to homebrew supplies. “That really started putting us on the map,” he said. “It wasn’t like I was trying to start a new business — I was just trying to supplement.”
With the growth in business, he began to add other new items to the store’s inventory, from a cigar humidor to bulk coffees and teas.
Now Siciliano’s Market has become a sort of mecca for the bustling West Michigan craft beer scene. And the scene is fueled by the homebrewers within the community.
“We have a real solid homebrew community,” he said. “It’s incredible what’s going on. Craft beer is exploding. There’s a synergy: The more homebrewers there are, the more breweries there are — they feed off of each other.”
Indeed, many of the now-professional brewers and brewery owners in the area are old customers of Siciliano’s. It started with Tom Buchannan of Jamesport Brewing Co. in Ludington, but the list is notable: Jacob Derylo of Brewery Vivant; Max Treirweiler, Chris Andrus and Jason Warnes of Mitten Brewing Co.; Bill White of White Flame Brewing in Hudsonville; Seth Rivard of Rockford Brewing and many more.
“It’s tremendously cool,” Siciliano said. “I don’t want to take too much credit for it, but the brewers came in here and I got to know them all. A lot of these guys were customers and I got to know them on a first-name basis.”
He visits all the breweries in town and is a mug club member at many of them, making his presence felt throughout the community and doing his part to keep the industry growing.
“We’re getting to the point of saturation, but the small breweries, if they do things correctly and serve their neighborhood, they’ll be successful,” he said. “Breweries that want to package beer and don’t do a good job, they probably won’t survive. We could be getting to that tipping point; we’re at least quickly approaching it.”
Just as he’s had a part in helping the local craft beer industry grow, he wants Siciliano’s Market to continue to expand. As the owner, he said, it’s his job to ensure the store’s continued growth, but he’s taking a more laidback approach these days.
“I’m to the point in my career that I’m not killing myself anymore, and now, if I want to leave at noon, I do,” he said.
Recently, he launched Siciliano’s Market Press to publish homebrew recipe and history books, another way to market his business. He’s also a self-published fiction author.
“I enjoy the marketing. Writing is rewarding and it’s one more way to put the store on the map and keep us improving. I haven’t lost the fire.”
Siciliano recently announced his American Homebrewers Association Big Brew Day May 4 at Calder Plaza. The event aims to get Grand Rapids excited about homebrewing before the AHA national convention comes to town in 2014, he said.
“This is something that’s very important. Getting the AHA convention is big, and it’ll show folks we do have a solid homebrew community,” he said.
He’s also looking for the next big thing that could take the store to yet another level.
“I want to continue to be highly regarded — that’s important,” he said. “It was like the (customers) won the Super Bowl, and for that reason I feel like we have a responsibility to keep doing what we’re doing for them.”
But he’s happy to be in a spot where he’s comfortable leaving his store. This fall, for the first time in more than 30 years, he and his wife, Barb, will take two weeks off for a vacation in Italy.