Rozi’s Wine House sold in Lakewood, longtime shop to continue tradition

September 18, 2018

Rozi’s Wine House sold in Lakewood, longtime shop to continue tradition

LAKEWOOD, Ohio – The first thing you notice when you walk into Rozi’s Wine House isn’t so much the shelves of wine, stacks of good beers or displays of gifts.

It’s what you hear: A creaky, old floor. It’s comforting, actually, making you feel like you’re in an old familiar place. Kind of like a home. And that’s appropriate, because if you ask Jim Wooley, family is the most important thing.

He started working at the store when he was 18. He grew up, became a lawyer, but never really left Rozi’s. Now 61, he and co-worker Bill Barak have bought the store from longtime owner Gary Rossen.

It’s more than a simple business deal. On the surface, customers won’t notice a difference, the transition seamless and quiet in May, an assurance that a business remains in Lakewood. But it’s more. Wooley and Barak view the Rossens as family. Gary is spoken of as a mentor, and a close friend.

Rozi’s has been around, in various locations, for 79 years, started by Maurice Rossen in 1939. His son, Warren, and grandson, Gary, took over. The spot was a former Woolworth’s, with two of the drugstore’s safes still remaining in Rozi’s current location at 14900 Detroit Ave.

“As things evolved and Gary wanted to retire,” Wooley said, it became clear the goal was “to stay independent, to never become a chain cookie-cutter.” He and Barak had become friends, and a partnership was inevitable, he said.

The new owners cannot speak highly enough of the Rossen family.

“Wonderful people,” Wooley said.

Added Barak: “He’s like my second father. Things would pop up, and I’d think ‘What would Gary do?’ He and (his wife) Carol took me in when I needed a job 10 years ago.”

The baton-passing, Wooley said, simply means “new owners, same attitude.”

Wooley’s memories of his time in the store date back more than 40 years. The folks who worked in the store simply got along. Wooley remembers working with a colleague who had played some minor-league baseball years earlier. Sometimes, Wooley said, when they had a moment, he would squat and the former ballplayer would wind up and toss an orange at him.

“We’d play catch and talk life,” he said.

“You can’t be a jerk to work here. You’ll get called out,” Wooley said.

The best assurance on the deal came from Rossen’s father, Warren, who is 99. A portrait of him hangs in the back of the store.

“When Gary told him ‘Jim is going to take over the store’ he said, ‘That’s great,’ ” Wooley said.

Wooley “wasn’t looking for something I wanted to invest in,” but the store and the Rossens mattered so much it was a no-brainer.

“We’re committed to be an independent Lakewood retailer,” said Wooley, now a lawyer for Jones Day. “It ain’t gonna be an Applebee’s.”

What it will rely on is customer service.

“A lot of times beer guys and girls come in and they want to talk about beer. We do, too,” said employee Tony Baucco, who said Rozi’s aims to cater to both beer and wine drinkers.

“You can buy beer anywhere, but it’s the atmosphere,” Wooley added. “We’re going to ensure that stays.”

Customers have a lot of options for beer and wine. Breweries have taprooms, grocery stores have beefed up selections. But Wooley knows the difference for someone walking in to buy a bottle or two of wine is education.

“We have to offer more than wine in a grocery store,” he said. “The customers - we want them walking out of the store saying ‘That’s a pretty cool place.’ ”

One person who knows that sentiment is Lakewood Mayor Mike Summers. A self-described “customer forever” of Rozi’s, he quickly extols the shop’s importance in his city.

“It’s an anchor and a touchstone,” he said. “It’s a business that has been able to evolve and stay with or ahead of the major consumption trends of alcohol. As wine has become more prominent in society they were a major leader in that business.

I always appreciated Gary would work with me through the store – ‘Do you like this? Try this’... “It made it fun,” Summers said.

The changeover from traditional to new guard, he said, is “a fabulous outcome.”

“Lakewood loves local,” he added. “We really, really appreciate, enjoy and disproportionately support local.”

That local clientele is split about 50-50 between wine and beer sales but is shifting to favor a wine a bit, thanks in part to a decent level of disposable income in the area, Barak said. And while you can still buy Budweiser, the beer selection is predominantly craft - regional, local and national. Its wine selection doesn’t rely on the same-old varietals. You’ll find intriguing wines from Hungary, New Zealand and Ohio all sharing space on the shelves.

Rozi’s also is known for its giant-bow-covered gift baskets, which are displayed throughout the store. The other thing the store will continue is its tasting events. That’s when that creaky hardwood floor gets a workout.

Monthly tastings started more than 20 years ago. Gary and Co. would feature a winery and drag out a Bunsen burner to serve up hot appetizers, Wooley said. Word spread. On the last Friday night of each month, workers serve food often matched with the drinks, pour wine, and crack open beers for customers. It’s like a ramped-up happy hour. Tastings run about $20. From Jackie O’s in Athens to Heavy Seas beers from Baltimore, the craft market is covered.

Plus there are seasonal tastings, like the seventh annual pumpkin-ale event, a popular one coming up Friday, Sept. 28.

“It draws a passionate crowd,” Baucco said.

Customers won’t notice huge differences with the changing of the guard, and that’s just the way Wooley and Barak want it. They are hosting a private friends-and-family, pass-the-torch open house this week.

We’re not changing the local fabric of this place,” Wooley said.

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