Putting the Personal Touch In Online Giving

Experts explain how they use it, and provide safety tips for donors

Generosity is part of the fabric of the holiday season. Thanksgiving is about showing gratitude and Christmas is now celebrated with gifts worldwide.

Given the convenience of satisfying that altruistic urge at the click of a mouse, it’s natural that more of our giving is moving online. Nonprofits have taken notice, and are enlisting their supporters as digital evangelists.

It was in this capacity that Jennifer Archie sat down at her computer a few months ago and wrote about her husband, Tim, and his 21-year battle with multiple sclerosis.

Archie revealed that Tim, who uses a wheelchair and has difficulty speaking, nonetheless “rides out this disease with humor and charm and grit day in day out, parenting his boys and backing me every day.”
She also wrote about the other parts of her “crappy year,” including the deaths of her sister, Tim’s mother and a friend.

The point wasn’t to elicit pity. Archie wrote that she would be participating in Bike MS: Bike to the Bay, an October ride from Dover to the beach that raises money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and she asked her friends and colleagues to donate.

Before her ride, Jennifer Archie is joined by her husband, Tim, and their sons, Duff, 21, and Ben, 17. Photo Chris Snyder

They did. Within three weeks, she had raised more than $30,000 from 112 donors.
Though it utilized a modern medium, Archie’s fundraising effort reveals something eternal about giving. Its power was drawn from the personal relationships she and her husband had cultivated over the decades. In other words, the people who gave were the ones who already cared about her family, not strangers drawn in by a generic online pitch.

“I do think there was an accumulated pool of empathy that I tapped into,” Archie says. She believes the effect was magnified by the request’s novelty, since she and her husband had never asked for money—or rarely sought sympathy—in the past.

Archie’s example is instructive for nonprofits seeking to harness the potential of online giving.
Nationwide, online fundraising grew at a clip of 8 percent in 2016 at a time when overall giving was virtually flat, according to the Blackbaud Institute for Philanthropic Impact.

Still, this is not a digital gold rush. There are downsides for both nonprofits (Face-to-face solicitation is more effective) and donors (Is the organization effective and is my identity secure?).

The medium: The message

There’s a guiding principle in fundraising: People give to people.

“The No. 1 reason people give is because someone they know asks them to,” says Stuart Comstock-Gay, president and CEO of the Delaware Community Foundation.

Central to that relationship is trust, which is difficult to establish online but can still be leveraged by social media, he says. It is rare, nowadays, to donate online without a suggestion that you share news of your gift on social media.

“You’re still looking for people who can endorse your message and reach out to their friends,” says Comstock-Gay.

There is another option: Craft a compelling Facebook campaign with a ready-made tug on the heartstring to pull in new donors. Certain nonprofits, such as pet shelters, have messages more suited to this tactic.

That can work, Comstock-Gay says, but social media does not typically create the bonds with strangers necessary for them to donate. The key, again, is to foster authentic relationships based on trust.
The gold standard, he says, remains the same: “Can I get people who know us to stand up?”

Targeting is key

The YMCA of Delaware chiefly relies on about 500 volunteers to directly ask members to donate, says Matt Clements, the Y’s director of philanthropy.

“There’s a higher response rate and you tend to get a larger gift when you ask face-to-face,” he says.
That’s not to say online fundraising doesn’t have a role, though it is most effective when the pitch is tailored to a specific group. For example, to raise money for “Giving Tuesday” —a movement to dedicate the Tuesday after Thanksgiving to charitable giving — the Y will email members who haven’t given yet this year.

The email pitch includes specific beneficiaries: low-income families who can join the Y thanks to these donations.

“The biggest thing is just segmenting your message,” Clements says, meaning the request is as tailored to an audience as possible.

One disadvantage to online giving is the cost of processing online donations; a small portion of each donation typically goes to the company that handles the transaction. For a nonprofit, losing, say, 3 cents off each dollar might be a loss worth taking, compared to getting nothing, to acquire a new donor. But if an existing donor is moving from paper checks to a website, a nonprofit is effectively losing money.
“At the Y, we use it, but even for us it’s a financial barrier,” Clements says of online transactions. “I can imagine for smaller nonprofits it’s a larger barrier.”

While online donations account for less than 5 percent of the Y’s donations now, that is set to grow. That’s because, in general, older people give more to charity.

“As current millennials grow older, the use of digital technology will increase,” Clements says.

Giving safely online

With thousands of charities at your fingertips, how do you know what’s safe and what’s not?

Furthermore, how can you separate the legitimate charities from the (relatively few) frauds?

Kelly Sheridan, who administers college scholarships for the Delaware Community Foundation, does all her personal giving online and has some advice.

First, to limit her exposure to identity theft, she never uses a card connected to a bank account. That way, if her data falls into the wrong hands, the thief can’t simply empty her account.

Sheridan vets a charity by exploring its website and finding the group’s mission statement and sources of funding.

“I don’t usually look hard at their financials as much as their mission statement and a listing of who else has supported them,” she says.

If you’re the type of person who does want hard data, check out Guidestar.org to find free financial information, including the compensation of top employees.

Technical reminders on giving safely online come from Jamila Patton Anderson, the Y’s director of public relations: Look in your browser’s address bar and you’ll see most website addresses begin with “http.” Secure websites, ones that are protecting your data, have an “s” at the end: “https.” Also, the address should have a small picture of a lock next to it.

Building real connections

Though Archie lives in Alexandria, Va., the Delaware beaches hold

Jennifer Archie and her husband, Tim, eat at the Rusty Rudder in Dewey Beach in 1987. She biked back to the beaches in October to raise money for multiple sclerosis research. Tim was diagnosed with MS in 1996. Photo Chris Snyder

a special place in her memory. In the ‘80s, she and her friends would share beach house getaways. And that’s where she met Tim, who consistently made her laugh.

“It was definitely a ride for the memories of Dewey Beach,” she says of her October bike ride.

Aside from the huge financial success, perhaps the most unexpected part of her fundraising campaign was the emotional lift it gave her and Tim. Her first foray into online giving re-connected them to old friends, all thanks to her decision to share an authentic story.

“Every day, I would come home from work and read Tim the names and the thank-you notes,” Archie says. “This really lifted him up…It really is sustaining, I have to say.”

Resurrecting the Beer King

A colorized photo of the King Gambrinus statue on the front of Wilmington's Diamond State Brewery, circa 1947. Photo courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society

The 19th-century statue was an icon of Delaware’s brewing history, and John Medkeff is determined to restore it

When the 11-foot statue of King Gambrinus began its 80-year watch atop Wilmington’s Diamond State Brewery in 1882, it was raising a goblet to the German immigrants who were turning brewing into an industry.

The immigrants brought lager brewing techniques to America, and their traditions, including King Gambrinus, came along, too. The mythical figure, typically bearded and cast in zinc, appeared on breweries across the country.

Then, in 1920, the 18th Amendment and Prohibition effectively ended Delaware’s golden age of brewing. Even after the misbegotten law was repealed in 1933, the local industry failed to thrive amid consolidation into a handful of major players.

Facing stiff competition from regional breweries, Diamond State closed in 1955. The one-two punch of Prohibition and consolidation, not to mention national brands like Budweiser and Coors, totally knocked brewing out of Delaware between 1955 and 1995.

King Gambrinus came on hard times, too, after Diamond State Brewery was demolished in 1962 to make room for Interstate 95. The statue was shuffled around to a few locations, and spent a decade at the former King’s Inn restaurant on Naamans Road north of Wilmington, the current location of Harry’s Savoy Grill.

Then, in 1978, as a buyer attempted to move it, it was dropped and shattered into more than 60 pieces. The weak point appears to have been a hook on the statue that couldn’t bear the 1,000-pound load.

Craft Beer to the Rescue

But the king may rise again. After the industry—in the form of craft beer—rebounded in Delaware and nationally, it seemed appropriate to pay homage to those who first brought beer here, says John Medkeff, Jr., a 54-year-old Wilmingtonian.

A native Delawarean and marketer by trade, Medkeff was driven to home brewing in the 1980s, he says, simply because he was disgusted by the poor quality of store-bought beer. He learned brewing from his family.

Medkeff published a book, Brewing in Delaware, in 2015, and is spearheading an effort to raise $100,000 to put the statue back together.

“It’s a perfect symbol of Delaware’s brewing industry, and of its revival,” says Medkeff. He’s hoping Delaware’s thriving craft beer industry—19 breweries, at last count—will contribute toward the project. 

He has formed a nonprofit, The Friends of Delaware’s Gambrinus Statue, Inc., to lead the “Restore the King” fundraising effort. The group has received estimates of approximately $100,000 to complete the statue’s restoration. What’s more, the Delaware Historical Society has agreed to exhibit the statue in its Market Street museum once it is repaired.

Whether a King Gambrinus ever existed may be lost to history. As for the myth that remains, Medkeff says, think of him as the Santa Claus of beer.

Medkeff’s research reveals that the first reference to Gambrinus may have come in the year 98 A.D., when the Roman historian Tacitus identified a German tribe called the “Gambrivii.” The beer king himself was likely an invention of later writers.

As the German people struggled with disunification, Gambrinus became a cultural touchstone for a shared heritage. The tradition was brought to America, and foundries actually advertised Gambrinus statues in beer trade journals. The statues tended to be made of zinc, a metal whose chief virtue was its low cost. Few of the figures remain; Medkeff knows of only four others that exist in North America today. The nearest statue is on display in Baltimore, while the others are in Breinigsville, Pa., Syracuse, N.Y., and Toluca, in central Mexico.

The beer kings who sprouted above breweries became symbols of German culture, but for modern audiences they have taken on new meanings. Delaware’s statue represents in part the social, cultural and industrial history of immigration in the late 19th century, says Scott W. Loehr, CEO of the Delaware Historical Society.

When Brewing Was Women’s Work

One modern Delaware brewer sees positive elements in that past, especially the connection between brewing and its local community.

Craig Wensell, founder of Wilmington-based Bellefonte Brewing Company, says restoring the statue is an important way to hold onto history. He sees something else in Gambrinus’ bushy beard: a re-branding of brewing as man’s work instead of a feminine job.

For the thousands of years before brewing became big business, it was typically the province of women, Wensell says. The industrialization of beer led men to claim it as their own, which required a rebranding campaign.

“The iconography of King Gambrinus really is an attempt by the masculine side of the culture to requisition brewing as something males did instead of females,” he says.

Wensell also says Gambrinus represented a connection to the community. When the statue was erected, he says, beer was a local product, made and consumed by local people. The advent of refrigeration and transportation changed this, and during Delaware’s four-decade brewery drought, that connection was severed.

Local craft brewers, Wensell says, are restoring that connection. They enjoy helping to lend an identity to the places where they operate, and their customers return that affection.

The statue’s own return trip was sparked by a pivotal encounter.

Picking up the Pieces

In 2014, Medkeff was researching his book on Delaware brewing history when he visited an estate sale for Robert Howard, a curator at the Hagley Museum and Library who owned the broken statue when he died.

At the sale, a lawyer approached Medkeff and asked if he knew anyone who might want the statue’s remains. And that’s how he ended up with the pieces, which may otherwise have been lost to a landfill.

The fundraising effort has only just begun with a few small events, and Medkeff says the nonprofit may expand to other parts of brewing history, perhaps with historic markers and memorials. The Friends group is planning a living history tour and Victorian picnic (with beer, of course) next spring to help raise money.

For now, though, they’re focused on raising the hundred grand —a rough target at this point—to weld the statue back together. Some pieces, however, are missing. To replace them, restorers will scan another of the statues cast from the same mold and fabricate the missing pieces.

Once finished, Wilmington’s Gambrinus will be painted to match its original colors and planted atop a base in the Market Street museum. Because it will be reinforced by an internal skeleton—the first version was largely hollow—it will be sturdier than before.

Of course, it would be much cheaper to simply cast an all-new statue, but ultimately less authentic and resonant, says Loehr. “It’s that connection to the real thing, to the stuff of history,” he says. “I think that’s what moves people.”

To learn about the statue, its history and the campaign to Restore the King, visit restoretheking.com.

Historic Taverns Seek Modern Niche

Sully’s, Cantwell’s offer authenticity with their food and drinks

Chuck Sullivan knew that underneath the 1970s decor, the Colonial-era architecture of his Irish pub was waiting to shine. So he tore out the fake walls to reveal the more than 250-year-old brick beneath.

But what he found under the stucco was, in some ways, worse. Much of the brick, laid down in 1761, was rotting away.

His simple compromise mixed old and new. Sullivan, who reopened the historic Middletown tavern in 2010 as Sully’s Irish Pub at the Witherspoon, decided to remove the plaster where the brick was intact and leave it in place elsewhere.

The look, of stucco weaving around brick, become a brand; it’s the image that appears on his business cards, for example.

Just a few miles to the east, in Odessa, Cantwell’s Tavern had been making trade-offs, too – trade-offs meant to preserve history while doing business. Also in 2010, it finished a transition from art museum to restaurant in a move that was intended by its nonprofit owners, in essence, as a preservation tool.

But fitting in a sufficient number of seats was a major challenge, says Bob Ashby, one of the proprietors. Modern restaurants use wide-open floor plans to maximize seating, but knocking down walls at Cantwell’s, built as the Brick Hotel in 1822, was out of the question.

With the help of booth seating, Ashby and his team managed to leave Cantwell’s charm intact while making it viable as a restaurant. They found value, too, in historic integrity.

“When you put (a restaurant) in a historic building, you have character that’s already there,” Ashby says.

One is an Irish pub and the other an upscale casual restaurant. Though Cantwell’s and Sully’s occupy different food niches, these taverns are being revived by owners who care about their history. And they’re standing out in a crowded marketplace by taking advantage of a simple fact: No one is making new Colonial taverns.

The Witherspoon Becomes Sully’s

Built in 1761 by David Witherspoon, the tavern was one of Middletown’s first buildings and a popular waypoint for travelers. Caesar Rodney, the revolutionary luminary whose midnight ride to sign the Declaration of Independence gave patriots the deciding vote, stopped by in 1777. Gen. George Washington recorded his 1783 visit to the tavern in his diary, and Sullivan has found strong evidence that Thomas Jefferson was there, too.

The inn also has a fascinating Civil War history as a hotbed of Confederate sympathizers, says George Contant, a historian at the Middletown Historical Society. Johnny Reb, it was generally known, could find a friend—and, in mixed company, a fight—at the Witherspoon.

“You knew that if you could escape from Fort Delaware and get to the Delaware side you had a very ready, willing and able reverse Underground Railroad to get you back to Virginia,” Contant says.

Prohibition and then the Depression brought hard times for the Witherspoon. Then, tragedy. On Valentine’s Day, 1946, a fire that started nearby devastated the building, more or less destroying its upper levels. It was rebuilt, and continued as a pub until Sullivan took over.

From Brick Hotel to Cantwell’s

Historical photos line the wall at Cantwell's Tavern in Odessa. (Photo courtesy of Cantwell's Tavern)
Historical photos line the wall at Cantwell’s Tavern in Odessa.
(Photo courtesy of Cantwell’s Tavern)

Cantwell’s Tavern, though it does not have as colorful a past, shares in the region’s boom-and-bust history. Its 19th-century prosperity as the Brick Hotel was a result of the town’s position astride the regional grain trade on the Appoquinimink River. But as the railroad displaced river travel, Odessa languished. For preservation purposes, that turned out to be a blessing, says Deborah Buckson, executive director of the Historic Odessa Foundation (HOF), which counts Cantwell’s among its historic holdings.

Though the town was in decay, she says, the lack of encroaching development meant it stayed essentially unchanged, a process called “preservation by neglect.”

“You’re looking at a Colonial streetscape,” she says of Odessa’s Main Street.

Along with much of Odessa, the hotel was restored in the mid-20th century by H. Rodney Sharp, who was married to Isabella Mathieu du Pont. It was through those family connections that the hotel would pass into the hands of the du Pont family, which most recently used it as an art museum under Winterthur’s auspices.

Both Sully’s and Cantwell’s have adopted modern uses while staying true to the past.

At Cantwell’s, mothballed by Winterthur in 2003, the HOF had plenty of modernization to reverse when it took control two years later. The building’s first use was its best use, Buckson says, and the HOF spent $1.2 million turning it back into a tavern. The business now generates about a third of the foundation’s operating income.

Today, the 165-seat restaurant also serves as an introduction to Odessa’s history, with walls covered with maps and other documents from the foundation’s collection.

Cantwell’s customers come for the charm, says Carolyn Davis, the general manager. Brunch is popular with locals; the extensive menu features hearty fare as well as sampler boards. The restaurant makes its own peanut butter and jam and does its own pickling. Signature dinner entrees include crab cakes ($24) and filet mignon ($31). Cantwell’s also caters, both to off-site events and weddings held in the nearby gardens.

Middletown Vitality

In Sullivan’s case, Middletown’s economic vitality, fueled by newcomers like him, made it a natural choice. But he wanted to make a place that the city’s old guard could enjoy, too.

A New Jersey native who most recently operated restaurants in Ohio, Sullivan knew he had to pay homage to the town’s history, so he appended “at the Witherspoon” to the Irish pub’s name, and filled the restaurant with nods to town history. You can, for instance, order an Odie Walker. Made up of a shot of Irish whiskey and a draft of your choice (at a reduced price) it’s named after a firefighter who etched his name on the rafters after the 1946 fire. The walls are dotted with local history, including a snippet from Sports Illustrated about an area football player and an American flag flown in Iraq by a Delaware National Guard unit.

The pub has a full menu, and Sullivan says the home-made Reuben, cooked from raw brisket and paired with sweet peppers, and the boxty, an Irish potato pancake, are among the highlights.

He wants to learn more about his bar’s history. The anecdote about Jefferson’s visit, which was unknown to the historical society until just a few months ago, appears to have only whetted his appetite.

“I don’t own this tavern,” he says. “I am merely the present-day caretaker.”

80 Years of Peco’s

From jug wine to craft beer, these fourth-generation liquor store owners adapt and survive. This month, they celebrate a milestone.

Peco’s Liquors enjoyed its proudest moments during its most trying hours.

In May 1986, an electrical fire devastated the family-owned liquor store in the Penny Hill area of north Wilmington. Nourished by the store’s flammable liquor, the blaze should have knocked the store out of commission for half a year, at the very least.

But from the beginning, owner Frank Gazzillo resolved to beat that timeline. He never lost his cool, grandson Ed Mulvihill remembers.

“Everybody was so willing to line up and do him a favor,” Mulvihill says, beaming. For a guy who didn’t get out much —14-hour days at the shop were typical—Gazzillo had built strong relationships.

He even found a connection for, of all things, structural steel. It ended up being over-sized for their needs (Mulvihill jokes their foundation could hold up a skyscraper) but the store was open by Labor Day.

And those relationships—along with innovation and community involvement—have sustained Peco’s, a fourth-generation business, amid growing corporate competition.
Their 80th anniversary party, to be held on Saturday, June 25, is a way to thank customers and employees while paying homage to Peco’s history. It will be tinged with sadness, though.

Gazzillo and his wife, Rita, married for 59 years, died last year within two months of each other. They had run the store for more than 50 years.

“Together, what those two did was very impressive,” Mulvihill says. “The love and devotion never went away.”

The story of Peco’s Liquors is inseparable from that of the family, starting with the building itself. The store’s office is the family home’s former kitchen, and the whiskey room long ago took over the dining room.

Joseph and Rita Peco, in the general store that is now Peco's Liquors. (Photo courtesy of Peco's Liquors)
Joseph and Rita Peco, in the general store that is now Peco’s Liquors.
(Photo courtesy of Peco’s Liquors)

An Immigrant’s Story

That intertwining history began with Joseph Peco, Mulvihill’s maternal great-grandfather.

He emigrated to the United States in 1906 at the age of 15. He worked plenty of jobs, including driver of a horse-drawn carriage hauling beer barrels. He saved his money, but would need a final push to start his business.

That came after his marriage to Frances, whom he met during a trip back to Italy.
“She pushed him into it,” Mulvihill says.

They picked a location in what was then the fast-growing suburbs of Wilmington, along a Boston-to-Baltimore transportation corridor—Philadelphia Pike, or Route 13. The initial shop was small, about 400 square feet.

It was a general store, selling bread, milk and eggs along with alcohol. Around 1942, though, Peco had to choose between selling liquor or food.

As with the choice of location, his decision would be seen as prescient by his descendants.
Given the competition local grocers face, Mulvihill doubts Peco’s would have survived until today as a general store.

In 1963, Frank Gazzillo stands proudly in front of the store’s new fine wine selection. (Photo courtesy of Peco's Liquors)
In 1963, Frank Gazzillo stands proudly in front
of the store’s new fine wine selection. (Photo courtesy of Peco’s Liquors)

Passing the Baton

When Joseph Peco died in 1953, Frances took over the store for a few years. By 1956, day-to-day operation had passed to the man their daughter Rita had married, Frank Gazzillo.

A bricklayer and Korean War vet, Gazzillo began working at the store one fall as construction cooled off for the winter. It was supposed to be temporary, but he never left.

Mulvihill describes his grandfather—“Pop-Pop” to him—as the “kindest, gentlest, most generous person”—the type of guy with whom people felt close even if they saw him only occasionally.

For years he worked from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m., a sacrifice he made both because he enjoyed it, Mulvihill says, and because it helped his family.

Customer service was Frank Gazzillo’s calling card.

“It didn’t matter who you were. If you came through that door you were important,” Mulvihill says.

Frank and Rita were also lifelong members and patrons of St. Helena’s Roman Catholic Church, just a stone’s throw away. (Joseph and Frances Peco donated the church’s altar.)
The store would continue to expand into the family home while the business adapted to a changing industry.

By the early 1960s, customers were increasingly looking for fine wines instead of the jug wines of the past.

In a photo taken in 1963, Gazzillo is shown beaming in front of the store’s new selection of fine wines. It would be the picture that ran with his obituary, as he’d always wanted.

In those days, beer coolers were downstairs. So if a customer wanted a cold one, they’d have to ask Gazzillo to go down and grab one.

He learned customers wanted to pick their own beer, so he added coolers to the main floor. It was convenient, and added credibility to his “coldest beer on the Pike” boast.
It was that day-to-day interaction with customers that would give Peco’s an edge over the big-box competition looming on the horizon, Mulvihill says.

“As a local business owner, you get instant feedback,” he explains.

The Next Generation

In 1993, a cancerous tumor was discovered in Frank Gazzillo’s sinus cavity. Frank and Rita’s daughter, Francine, took what was supposed to be a six-month leave of absence to run the store.

But just as it did with her father, Francine Mulvihill’s temporary stay soon turned into something more.

“I could be with my kids,” she says, including Ed Mulvihill, then a year old. “I liked my flexibility.”

Gazzillo, his trademark confidence buoying him, made a full recovery, Ed Mulvihill says. Ever since, lymphoma and leukemia societies are frequent beneficiaries of Peco’s charity events.

Since the passing of Frank and Rita last fall, new family members have joined the company. David Gazzillo, Eric Gazzillo, and Kristen Gazzillo are shareholders and help out when they can.

New Owners, New Niches

Ed Mulvihill had been around the store his whole life, though he wasn’t allowed inside as a child. His grade-school memories consist of wheedling soda and bags of chips from Pop-Pop and building forts from the store’s empty boxes.

Unlike with his mother and grandfather, working at Peco’s was not a happy accident for Ed Mulvihill.

“This was the one thing I could see myself doing long-term,” he says. By 2007, he was working part-time, designing the website and helping out in other ways.

The ascendance of craft beers is by now an old story, but Mulvihill came of age just in time to ride the small-brew wave. He joined the store full-time in 2011, and decided to make Peco’s synonymous with craft beer.

“The thing that was going to make us stand out at that time was craft beer,” he says.
Today they have 500 varieties, enough to fill 10 coolers. Craft accounts for 75 percent of the store’s beer sales.

Milford-based Mispillion River Brewing has even brewed a bourbon-barrel aged stout—Peco’s Anniversary Stout—just for the store.

Intense Competition

Big-box competition has been the biggest modern disruption to family-owned retailers, and liquor is no exception. When Total Wine & More opened its flagship location 10 minutes away, sales at Peco’s fell, Mulvihill acknowledges.

That’s not to say he’s complaining.

Competition “forces you to be the best you can be,” he says.

For some products, Mulvihill pays suppliers more than what Total Wine charges customers. In other words, he can’t always win on price.

The challenge is Economics 101: If customers see your product as a commodity — as essentially no different from a competitor’s — they are likely to make purchasing choices on price alone. Few businesses relish price wars, and that’s especially true for small retailers.

From this vantage point, Mulvihill’s job is to convince his customers that the beer and spirits he sells are worth more, so to speak, than the alcohol sold by his competitors. It’s a tough task but not an impossible one. Consider the success of coffee shops.

Do customers really choose a $3.45 large (ahem, “trenta”) Starbucks coffee over a $1.79 large from McDonald’s because they think the coffee is twice as good?

In this analogy, Peco’s is like Starbucks. It has to sell service, and an experience. The service element has been a Peco’s hallmark for decades.

Customer Karyn Sundleaf says the staff are always happy to answer her wine questions. It’s not like that everywhere, she says. “At some places you feel like you’re in the way.”

Food Truck Friday on Steroids

One way to stand out from the crowd is to cultivate a distinctive image with customers. Holding events has proven to be Mulvihill’s most effective marketing tactic.

Chief among them is The Great Pumpkin Debate, a pumpkin beer tasting event held each September that regularly attracts hundreds of visitors. Started in 2011 amid a proliferation of pumpkin beer, the event is also a chance to give back, including to the Delaware Humane Association.

And the last Friday of every month is Food Truck Friday, when free samples, live music, and, yes, food trucks roll in. The 80th anniversary event, to be held from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. June 25, will be something of a Food Truck Friday on steroids, Mulvihill says.

It will also be an opportunity to announce the creation of the Frank and Rita Gazzillo Foundation, which will fund scholarships and community development programs.

Ed and Francine behind the state's first growler bar. (Photo Javy Diaz)
Ed and Francine behind the state’s first growler bar. (Photo Javy Diaz)

State’s First Growler Bar

In 2011, Mulvihill called state regulators to ask whether he could sell beer in growlers—refillable brown jugs—in his store. Though there was no law forbidding it, he was told state law would have to be amended to specifically allow growlers.

Fortunately, his state representative, Debra J. Heffernan, was also a customer. “She ran with it,” he says. The law passed in 2013, and Peco’s soon became the first retailer in the state to fill growlers.

As of mid-May, Peco’s growler bar offered 12 craft beers on tap.

More Expansion

It was about this time that Peco’s embarked on its most recent expansion. Mulvihill ran the idea by Frank and Rita Gazzillo, who were by this time in their 80s and spending less time at the store. They basically said that if he thought it was the right thing to do, they did too.

That sort of flexibility allows the business to change quickly.

Mike Neef, who works with the distributor Breakthru Beverage, says that makes it easier for a new flavor to catch on. Chain stores typically require that pitches for new products go to upper management, he says.

“Here, they say ‘yes’ and it’s in the store the next day,” he says. “They can take a chance on a new flavor here.”

The next big thing, Mulvihill says, is craft spirits. This sector, already expanding quickly, is positioned where craft beer was around 1990, he says.

It’s potentially lucrative; wine and spirits make up about 60 percent of Peco’s sales.
Another new product is tagging along: artisan mixers. A customer looking for a distinctive gin might also be interested in a unique tonic.

The store also recently added a product Mulvihill noticed on an episode of ABC’s reality-TV show Shark Tank, where entrepreneurs pitch ideas to investors: $10 cozies that fit around any liquor or beer bottle. They’re made by Freaker USA, a company whose off-beat brand shares a challenge with stores like Peco’s: finding a niche in a crowded market.

Inter-Generational Pride

When Mulvihill looks back on the years Rita and Frank ran the store, he thinks about how proud they were to be a part of the community.

Though he doesn’t say it, Mulvihill is clearly proud, too.

“We have been consistently blessed with employees who feel like friends and customers who feel like family,” he says.

Corny as it may sound, it comes off as genuine.