Photos by Emilee Robinson
Joe’s Wines and Liquors has been a landmark of Midtown since 1960, with its famed sputnik sign serving as a welcoming beacon to all that are thirsty. For the past 23 years the Larson family has taken the reins of the iconic location by pioneering what a liquor store can be in the mid-south. We sit down with Brad, Sisco and Ross Larson to talk about the past two decades and what they plan for the next few.
Originally I’m from Rochester, New York. I’ve been in the food and beverage business for 55 years. I started as a dishwasher at a Polynesian restaurant called when I was 13 years old at a Polynesian restaurant called Luau that kind of encompassed the whole Pacific Rim.
A neighbor a couple doors down owned the business and asked me if I wanted to work as a dishwasher one night, and I loved it. I loved the smells, the energy, work and especially the money. On a Friday or Saturday we would probably make $30 or $40, which back in ‘67 was a lot of money for a kid to have.
It was a crazy place with a volcano water fountain and a lazy river type of thing. Just a very cool over the top place. It had a huge tiki bar that served Singapore Slings, Brandy Alexanders, Grasshoppers, all of those ‘70’s cocktails. It was a place a family might go to earlier, and at night people would take their dates to. They would serve dinner until 10, and after that the place would turn into a club. It was way too late for a 13-year-old to be working, but I really enjoyed it.
It was actually kind of a nefarious place. The owner brought in guys from China to cook and had a house that they all lived in. The owner would actually go pick up the staff in a station wagon. First he would bring the cooks and then he would go back and pick me and my buddy up.
It was the first time I really felt that buzz that comes from working at a busy restaurant, and it was always busy. The place held several hundred people, and we would still flip tables.
It was just a wild show, but it only lasted about six months. One night the owner was giving me and a buddy a ride home from work, and I guess he had gotten into the cups a little bit, because almost drove us into the Erie Canal after he had passed out at the wheel. After that my parents told me I wasn’t allowed to work there anymore, but after that I was hooked on the industry and worked at several other restaurants throughout high school.
In November of my junior year of high school my parents decided to move to Memphis. Since I had some athletic stuff going on in Rochester I wanted to stay. I ended up living with some other families and even a teacher for the last year and a half of high school.
By the time I graduated high school, I hadn’t seen my parents in over a year. My dad told me that my mom would like to be with me for a little bit, so I decided to head south and see what my folks had planned. I had shoveled my last shovel full of snow. I wanted to leave so bad I couldn’t stand it.
I had shoveled my last shovel full of snow. I wanted to leave so bad I couldn’t stand it.
In the early ‘70s Memphis had a really great gymnastics team, and I was involved in gymnastics, so I applied and got a scholarship and came to Memphis State.
I came down in August and moved in with my parents and started taking classes. In November they decided to move to Dallas, so I only saw them for four months. I’ve been on my own since then.
I got back into the food and beverage business while I was at Memphis State, and took a job with a buddy at a Hilton by the airport. It was a nice French restaurant that had all black waiters who worked the seasonal circuit. They would be in New Orleans in winter, Memphis in spring and Mackinac Island in summer.
Me and my buddy started there as busboys for the first six months before we moved up to waiters. We kept moving up the ladder and eventually I took a job opening a new Hyatt.
At the time I was still balancing school and work, but I had ended up living with a professor. I was studying business and education at Memphis State, and I realized I was making twice as much as my professor was and only working three days. The restaurant industry was very good back then and it was also a lucrative job.
So I left Memphis State and I started working in Hyatt’s management-training program learning everything I could about the industry — everything from purchasing, bartending, managing, to becoming a sommelier. In fact, I was probably the first sommelier in town, not that people knew at the time what that was.
I liked all aspects of the work. They pretty much came to me and said, ‘We can’t teach you anymore. You’re ready to go on to the big time.’
They had just opened three huge hotels in New Orleans, Houston and Dallas, each over a 1,000 rooms. They told me that I should probably consider exploring those markets. So I took an interview in New Orleans. It was just a circus — unions, language barriers, 3,000 person dinners.