Friends & business partners
Well-traveled M-CHS grads return home to run Smitty's Liquors
Warm day. Cold drinks. Close friends. Combine these three ingredients and good times are sure to follow.
Enjoying a beer - or whichever alcoholic beverage you prefer - with friends is a pastime many have shared.
Less common is the case of Doug Jorgensen and Shiloh Higgins, two friends who make a living selling beverages to others.
Yesterday, Jorgensen and Higgins celebrated their second anniversary running Smitty's Liquors together. They bought the Highway 491 business on March 1, 2011 from longtime owners Gary and Gloria Schmidlin - the "Smittys" who gave the store its name.
Both guys have local roots. Higgins was born and raised in Cortez, and Jorgensen transplanted here midway through high school when his father retired from military service. They graduated from Montezuma-Cortez High School with the Class of 1999, and like many small-town teenagers, flew the coop to expand their horizons and see the wider world.
Seeking adventure, they went separate ways at first, but eventually reunited in southern California where Jorgensen had found work at a skateboard retail company called Pharmacy.
With the skate business booming in sunny southern California and beyond, Pharmacy was looking to expand. Jorgensen and Higgins jumped at the opportunity to open a new store in Las Vegas in 2005. It was there they became better friends.
"We knew each other since high school and kept in touch. We'd hang out (in California), but we grew closer in Vegas. We had no choice, really - we didn't know anybody else," Higgins says.
Life in the fast lane was, as they put it, "a blast," but in 2010 Jorgensen and Higgins found themselves looking for an exit.
After a decade away, the peace and quiet of the Four Corners called them home.
"I just wanted to get reacquainted with a slower-paced lifestyle. The city is overwhelming. It can wear you down quick," Jorgensen says.
There wasn't really a plan except to "enjoy nature and the outdoors." But he quickly discovered that too much free time made him restless.
"I think you need a job for stability, for day-to-day balance," he says.
Higgins returned to Cortez a few months later, and together they approached the Schmidlins about buying Smitty's.
"I remembered they had tried to sell a few years prior," Higgins says. "When we came back, the sign was taken down but I figured they would still be interested."
So the two buddies decided to check it out.
Some consultants are adamant: running a business alongside a friend is asking for trouble - for both the business and the friendship. What if the friends disagree on strategy? What if sales drop, debt piles up and they start pointing fingers? Is it not better to keep personal and professional spheres separate?
"I'd heard horror stories about going into business with a friend," Higgins says. "But we have the same interests, the same goals and vision. We've had no problems. Nothing to complain about."
Jorgensen said it hasn't been awkward at all.
"Finding a (compatible) business partner is one of the hardest things to do when launching a business. Finding someone you trust and can rely on 100 percent is tough," he says. "But me and Shiloh are on the same page. We have different styles and personalities that fit together well. If I leave for any length of time, I trust things here will get done."
They haven't faced much adversity yet. Sales are good and still climbing. The slow economy has been a non-factor, perhaps reflecting the popular viewpoint that alcohol is one of the few recession-proof industries.
"We've beat our (profit) goals both years," Higgins says proudly.
The transition from boards to booze was pretty seamless, they added. Retail skills they'd picked up at the skate shops came in useful here too.
"Communicating with suppliers, keeping your stock fresh, talking to customers and helping them find what they need - it's all similar," Higgins says. "If you can sell one product you can sell another."
The two men have made a concerted effort to breathe new life into Smitty's. The exterior, with its nondescript brown siding and faded billboard sign, looks much the same as before. Inside is where the transformation stands out. They ripped out the aging particle board shelves and replaced them with new metal ones. They applied a fresh coat of paint. And most importantly, they expanded and diversified the merchandise.
Higgins estimates that inventory has tripled. They've brought in more varieties of beer, vodka and whiskey, and made a special push to bolster the wine selection.
"We want to offer everything from the low-end stuff, where people don't care what it tastes like, to high-end bottles that might stick around on the shelf for a year waiting for the right buyer," he says. Jorgensen and Higgins both stressed that their upgrades were not meant to slight the Schmidlins, who made their own mark by renaming Smitty's and turning it a full-fledged liquor shop. Prior to their ownership the building was mostly an RV supply store with only a small fridge for beer.
As for future improvements, the two friends want to make the storefront more inviting and refurbish the towering billboard sign. The twin forces of time and weather have rendered it only partly legible now. On the topic of signs, Higgins divulges his admiration for Cork 'n Bottle's eye-catching, lit-up display on Main Street.
"Maybe something like that," he says, the creative wheels turning.
But he knows that people like to see things stay the same.
"Although people might be upset with us if we changed things up too much. They get nostalgic about the way a place has always looked," he says.
SHOOTING THE BREEZE
One of the most gratifying aspects of the job, Jorgensen and Higgins agreed, is establishing good-natured rapport with regular customers.
Many who enter are greeted by name, and some with inside jokes.
At the counter, while ringing up purchases, the witty banter and gossip continues. Customers fill Doug and Shiloh in on the latest news about town: comings and goings, breakups, hookups, jobs lost, grisly injuries, exciting catches from a recent fishing trip, the weather.
People seem free to share about every topic imaginable, similar to the way loose-lipped bar patrons open up to a sympathetic bartender.
Knowing their customers on a personal level helps the hours go by quickly, Higgins says.
"As new owners, it took us a while to win people over. But I think we have for the most part," he says. "Now they tell us everything on their minds."
One customer, Jennifer, decides to comment on Jorgensen's scruffy, unkempt appearance on her way out.
"Everyday you look more and more like a lumberjack," she observes.
He knows it, and is none too happy about it.
"The beard is annoying. There's no plus to it. At this point it just gets in the way. I can't even ride my motorcycle without bugs getting stuck in there," he laments, explaining that he's three months into a bet with his brother and friend (not Shiloh) to see who can go longest without shaving.
So far his resolve is holding.
"I don't want to lose the money," he says.
Another woman hobbles in with a brace wrapped around a busted ankle. She needs a bottle of Pinot Grigio. "You should have called. We would have brought it over," Higgins says.
"It's my first day weight-bearing," she replies. "I had to get out of the house."
"OK. Just call if you need anything," he offers, helping carry the bottle out to her car.
The ebb and flow of customer traffic continues on - a colorful assortment of characters, a microcosm of life in Montezuma County. For all their diversity, they walk in with a common purpose: picking the right drink to suit the occasion. With a little help from Doug and Shiloh, they find it.