By Victoria Merlino
The daughter of a millionaire booze mogul has her sights set on College Point, leaving fearful mom-and-pop liquor merchants, a delegation’s worth of flip-flopping legislators and political dollars in her wake.
Michelle Trone, a 31-year-old entrepreneur, wants to open an alcohol megastore called Total Wine & More at 30-02 Whitestone Expressway, the site of a former Toys “R” Us. Total Wine is a $3 billion national chain that sells alcohol at low prices and was founded by Trone’s uncle Robert Trone and father David Trone, a U.S. representative from Maryland.
In an interview with the Eagle, Michelle Trone said that the Costco of cocktails will feature over 1,400 locally sourced wines and 350 spirits, hold tastings and events and offer around 175 jobs to the borough.
“There’s nothing like it in Queens at all,” she said.
But the bourbon and bubbly big box store has local liquor shop owners worried about their own businesses.
Alex Melamudov, owner of Corona liquor store Phoenix Spirits, said smaller businesses will take a major hit from the "large, predatory, corporate entity.” Melamudov told the Eagle that Total Wine would shut down smaller vendors like “shooting fish in a barrel.”
“We being competitive businesspeople, we only ask for a level playing field for us to compete,” he said. Melamudov stressed that many liquor store owners were immigrants trying to make it as entrepreneurs. “The Walmart of liquor,” as the New York Post characterized Total Wine, would kill local businesses, he said.
"It would destroy our nest eggs, basically,” said Melamudov, noting that many in the industry sink their lives and earnings into their businesses.
Melamudov also said that Michelle Trone’s application was “deceptive.”
“This particular application is not a springboard into entrepreneurship," he said.
Boxing out small business
Though Michelle Trone stressed that she will own this particular Total Wine outright if the state approves her application for a liquor license, the Trone brothers own the rest of the Total Wines found throughout 23 states. Though it will be Michelle Trone’s business, it will use the Total Wine name and branding.
This could be an important distinction, as New York state law prohibits one wine or liquor seller owning more than one store, and the Trones already have a store in Westbury, Long Island that opened in 2017. Their application to open another store, this one upstate near White Plains, was rebuked last year by the State Liquor Authority due to oversaturation in the market.
Liquor store owners and the organization that lobbies for them, the Metropolitan Package Store Association, point to the impact of the Total Wine in Westbury as a reason to fear the company coming to Queens.
“The customers all shop there and we kind of get the crumbs," said Paul Zagardo, who owns Path to Saving Wines and Liquor, a store in Baldwin, Long Island about eight miles away from the Westbury location.
Zagardo said his business has gone down about 30 percent since Total Wine opened. The sales number aligns with what other Long Island liquor retailers reported losing, according to a report from Rockland/Westchester Journal News.
“We haven’t lost everything, thank god,” he said.
Michelle Trone said that she disagrees that her store will hurt other businesses.
“I think it’s going to be perfectly possible for us to co-exist, because my store will have a completely different business model,” she said.
Her store is designed for customers to purchase many bottles in bulk, and she said she envisions residents going to Total Wine “three to six times a year,” such as before a party or the holidays. Total Wine fulfills a different need than smaller, local liquor stores, she added.
“I expect those same customers who’ve been going to the same local liquor store for years are going to keep going there, day in and day out for a quick bottle of wine on a Friday night,” she said.
Impact on local politics
A host of local lawmakers initially supported Michelle Trone’s Total Wine, citing its merits as a “woman-owned company,” in letters of support obtained by the Eagle. But many have backed out after protests from local liquor store owners and the Metropolitan Package Store Association.
Councilmembers Peter Koo and Costa Constantinides, Assemblymembers Andrew Hevesi and David Weprin and several others have each rescinded their support since signing the letter.
“It takes a courageous individual to change his position. When I signed on to it, it seemed innocuous enough,” Weprin told the Eagle by phone. “I wasn't aware of the pros and cons.”
Weprin said around 25 small liquor store owners contacted him about Total Wine, claiming the store hurt small businesses. “I changed my position to support my constituents.”
Constantinides and Koo cited similar reasons for reversing their support in statements to the Metropolitan Package Store Association reviewed by the Eagle.
On the other hand, Assemblymember Daniel Rosenthal and Councilmember Paul Vallone, who both represent the College Point area, are still in favor of the project.
June Trone, Michelle Trone’s mother and the wife of Total Wine founder David Trone, contributed $1,000 to Rosenthal’s campaign account in June.
David Trone contributed $1,000 to State Sen. John Liu’s campaign account in July. Both listed an address in Potomac, Maryland, where the couple had been reported to live.
Rosenthal’s Chief of Staff Tim Thomas told the Eagle that though their office is still open to new information, Rosenthal and his team think Michelle Trone has done her due diligence engaging with the area’s community board and other local stakeholders for them to support the project.
Liu, who also represents College Point, rescinded his support for Total Wine.
"The long term impacts that a chain store like Total Wine & More will have on the community raise serious concerns about their application,” Liu said in an emailed statement to the Eagle. “Their practices of undermining competitors unfairly will, in the long-term, not only harm consumers and the 350 small business owners already operating liquor stores in Queens, but will also run counter to the purposes and spirit of the law, which is meant to protect the health and safety of New Yorkers."
David Trone also donated $10,000 to Nassau County Executive Laura Curran in June 2018. The Westbury Total Wine is located in Nassau County.
Michelle Trone said contributions from her family were not attempts to purchase influence.
“A lot of people support me coming to Queens. And you know, two donations isn’t the reason,” she said. “The reason is because all of the great things it will do for the community.”
She also mentioned that the Metropolitan Package Store Association has made donations to politicians that have opposed Total Wine coming to Queens, like State Sen. Michael Gianaris, who according to campaign filings received $2,500 from the lobbying group in October 2018.
“Total Wine would be a total disaster for small businesses in western Queens and I urge the State Liquor Authority to reject its application,” said Gianaris in a statement published on his New York State Senate website. “I stand with small business owners to fight for a stronger community and against further intrusions from anti-competitive businesses that prey on our small businesses.”
A spokesman for Gianaris told the Eagle that the donation did not influence his decision to oppose Total Wine, and that his office has been “inundated” with calls from small store owners concerned about the retailer asking him to publicly oppose it.
The Metropolitan Package Store Association will host a meeting on Sept. 16 as they try to continue to organize local retailers against Total Wine. Michelle Trone told the Eagle that her hearing with the State Liquor Authority regarding her liquor license isn’t set yet, but it might be in November.