Laurie Hellbusch Wolford transitioned from law to retail with nary a slip. Chalk it up to her business management degree.
By Andy Roberts
– Photo by Michael Tran
Second Career for Attorney Is ‘Spirited’
The Daily Record
It appears, in this case, that the cure is successful.
Laurie Hellbusch Wolford calls herself a “recovering lawyer.” In her new role, she is the owner of Spirit World at 75th and Pacific in Omaha, and enjoying a new life in retail.
“I’m not one of those people who ‘always knew I wanted to be a lawyer,’” she said. “My undergrad degree is in business management and I decided to go to law school after working in management consulting for three years after undergrad.”
Wolford realized then that she wanted to go back to school, with the idea of opening more doors for the future. So she followed up her undergraduate degree from Iowa State with a J.D. from Nebraska.
“I wanted to have options in life,” she explained. “I didn’t necessarily see myself actually using my degree to practice law.”
However, she enjoyed law school more than she anticipated, and started looking into legal jobs after her first year.
“I began clerking for Abrahams Kaslow & Cassman law firm the summer after my first year of law school,” Wolford revealed. “I clerked there every year through graduation, then became an associate after passing the bar exam.”
Her primary practice areas were litigation and franchise law, and she wasn’t looking to leave, having really enjoyed her time with the firm.
“I knew the prior owner of Spirit World [Denny Lewis] and heard he was looking to find someone to take over the business,” she recalled. “I actually didn’t consider myself as a potential candidate to take over until about a year after I heard he was looking.
“But I was developing a significant interest in food and wine as a hobby, and one day it just clicked – I could make my hobby my job.”
Wolford met one day with the then-owner to talk about her interest in the business. Two months later the paperwork was signed. That was 2008.
She married Eric Wolford in October of 2008, just 10 months after buying Spirit World. He is the senior director of Academic Advising at Bellevue University. The couple has a 2-year-old daughter, Quinn, and a second daughter is due in January.
Spirit World has been around since 1973 when it opened on the north side of the street, across from its current location at 75th and Pacific. About 10 years later it moved to the present location. A second location near 114th and West Dodge Road was open for about 10 years, but closed during the construction of the Dodge Street Expressway.
“We’re back down to one location, for now,” she said.
One location but what a selection! Wolford said Spirit World usually stocks about 1,000 wines, 1,000 spirits and 500 beers.
“We like to maintain a wide selection,” she said.
While it’s easy to find a bottle or wine or a six-pack of beer, people shop at Spirit World for reasons other than convenience.
“The reason people come to us is for our knowledge and selection,” Wolford explained. “We have extremely knowledgeable and passionate staff with many years of experience.”
Experimenting can be expensive – and provide you with some bad experiences.
“If you come here, we can help narrow down what you’ll like by talking through what other items you’ve enjoyed or not enjoyed, and finding just the right product for your occasion,” she offered. “We like to think of ourselves as your ‘personal beverage shopper.’ We get to know your tastes, and with our regular customers, even stock our inventory based on their tastes.”
Wolford maintains her plans had not specifically been to work in a retail setting.
“Although the practice of law is challenging, running a retail business is challenging in a different way,” Wolford explained. “It can also require long hours, and there is a constant demand to stay competitive and relevant in the market.”
Despite those elements, which many would not enjoy, she found the stress of running a retail business to be a better fit for her personality than the legal profession.
“As an attorney, the decisions you make can significantly impact your clients’ lives – often for the better, but occasionally for the worse,” she pointed out. “For me, that pressure weighed heavy.”
On the other hand, as a retailer of wine and spirits with a restaurant component, it seems the worst thing you can do is suggest a wine for dinner that someone doesn’t like.
“It’s just not life or death stuff,” Wolford said. “Generally, you’re improving someone’s day by giving them something delicious to eat or drink.”
She has found the Omaha wine market to be surprisingly strong, and getting stronger.
“It never ceases to amaze me how much room for growth there is in the wine market,” Wolford stated. “Each time a new wine retailer comes into the market, you would think the market would be saturated and another retailer would be forced out of the market, but it just hasn’t happened yet.
“It seems the market is only growing bigger and bigger. I suspect it’s because there are still a lot of people who haven’t been wine drinkers in the past who are being turned on to wine one way or another.”
At Spirit World, she said it helps that they also sell a large selection of beer and spirits, and that the store has a gourmet deli with catering and delivery.
“Product diversity helps keep things steady through seasonal ups and downs within various categories,” she explained.
The fall, and one recent day in particular, present the opportunity to have some fun with the store’s name,
“We love Halloween. Our Halloween slogan is ‘Booooze!’” Wolford explained. “It’s simple, but effective. We even have Halloween Booooze T-shirts.”
There are numerous products created for the Halloween season with fun in mind. Those include spooky wine labels to Crystal Skull Vodka, which comes in a bottle shaped like a skull.
Wolford feels the shop is riding a wave, as wine seems to be steadily growing in popularity.
“For a long time, people thought of wine as the stuff that came in a jug that they served at Italian restaurants,” she explained. “But people are learning there are so many different varieties of wine from white to red, sweet to dry. It’s really difficult to categorically say you don’t like wine.
“There really is something for everyone, and people are being adventurous and trying things and realizing there’s a wine out there for them.”
Chardonnay and Cabernet are solid favorites, but Pinot Noir is making a move in the market as the holidays near.
In addition to the potables, Spirit World has an assortment of wine and bar accessories, gourmet foods and gift baskets, including pre-made and custom baskets.
“We also have a gourmet deli with dine-in seating for 75, and we have delivery and catering,” Wolford offered. “A lot of customers use our catering for boxed lunches and party trays, but we also do full service catering for everything from client receptions to weddings.”
The deli, she says with pride, is famous for its chicken and tuna salads.
People have noticed as Spirit World has won Best of Omaha for at least 10 years, she said, and they usually are in the ring for the Readers Choice Awards.
By Nebraska law, all of Spirit World’s alcohol products are required to be purchased through Nebraska licensed liquor wholesalers.
“Some restaurants and retailers tend to stick with one or two favorite wholesalers for all their products, but we hand pick a selection of items from each wholesaler to ensure we have a wide variety of the best products available.”
Consistent business growth since she took ownership is a source of pride for Wolford. The timing of her purchase coming just before the start of the recession – she bought Spirit World in January 2008 – just makes it that much sweeter.
“So to have accomplished sales increases each year in a poor economy feels like a win,” she admits.
The past year has seen some significant structural and staff changes with the goal of creating more management structure and accountability. Much of that was done with the thought of taking some of the day-to-day management functions off Wolford’s plate so she could spend more of her time on growing the business.
“So far it seems to be working,” she said. “We’re having a fantastic year and look forward to continued growth in the future.”
Spirit World customers come from everywhere, but Wolford admits the store came with a customer base. In the effort to keep growing the business, she has tried traditional marketing through the media as well as running Living Social deals and coupon books.
“In my experience, the old saying is true: ‘Word of mouth is the best advertising.’ We make every attempt to provide the best possible experience to our current customers,” Wolford stressed. “If they have a positive experience, hopefully they’ll tell a friend.”
Spirit World also participates in the Omaha community, by supporting non-profit organizations and events, and offering events and educational opportunities within the store. A native Omahan, Wolford said the community is “extremely supportive” of small businesses, unlike many other parts of the country.
As for the future, Wolford will tell you she doesn’t know what Spirit World will look like in five or 10 years. It could involve other product lines or other locations, or who knows?
“I have so many ideas, my challenge is to edit them to make sure I’m not taking on too many challenges at once,” she cautioned. “I think to be successful, it’s important to pick a direction and focus. For the immediate future, my focus is on growing some of the current aspects of the business, such as our deli and catering.”
All of which will only enhance the wonderful experience that is Spirit World.