The Beerfather: Gene Vukelic
Buffalo, they say, is a big city that acts like a small town. The six-degrees-of-separation business we’ve all heard about usually shrinks to one or two in Buffalo when you shake hands with someone you’ve just met and realize, “Hey, wait a minute, aren’t you …?”
I had a moment like that when I began preparing articles about Try-It Distributing chairman Gene Vukelic and award-winning home brewer Alex Sowyrda. I had already spent a delightful afternoon with Sowyrda bellied up to the bar in his North Buffalo dining room talking about his passion, brewing about 120 gallons a year of handcrafted beer in his garage. The next morning I was at Try-It in Lancaster to meet with the patriarch of one of the area’s three leading beer distributors, the folks who bring Labatt Blue and Anheuser-Busch products, among many others, to your favorite tavern or store. A welcoming fellow, he chatted with me about his family’s business and the wonderful “stakeholders” (as he calls his employees) who have brought Try-It success in a very competitive industry. One of those loyal stakeholders is East Auroran Allen Ott, Sr., now retired after a long career with Try-It and the man who suggested I call Gene Vukelic. And wouldn’t you know it, Allen Ott’s grandson is ... Alex Sowyrda.
So with two visits I was able to connect the dots between the extremes of the local beer business. There is Sowyrda with his 120 annual gallons and there is Vukelic who watches 120 gallons of beer go out of his 150,000 square foot warehouse every few minutes, twenty-four hours a day, on a fleet of over fifty trucks.
Touring the Try-It warehouse with vice-president Tim Vukelic, one of five sons who work at the business in management capacities, was like seeing the Rocky Mountains for the first time. You just can’t believe anything is that big. Filling the leviathan structure are hundreds of yards of Budweiser, Bud Light, Blue, and Blue Light stacked high on pallets. (Try-It, by the way, is the largest Labatt distributor in the world.) Represented as well are the new kids on the block: scores of brands of microbrews and craft brews like Buffalo’s Flying Bison, Saranac, Lake Placid, and Great Lakes in flavors as exotic as blueberry and coffee. And in a humbling experience for this supposedly knowledgeable beer drinker, I saw at least twenty-five brands I had never heard of. Ah, so much beer, so little time.
How did Try-It manage to become one of three major beer distributors in Buffalo when, back in 1960 when Gene Vukelic joined his father in the business, there were thirty-three? A little history is in order.
Try-It came into being in 1928, a few months before the Great Depression kicked the stuffing out of the Buffalo economy and about ten years into Prohibition—not great timing, you might say. But Croatia-born Stephen Vukelic was a hard-working, twenty-seven-year-old entrepreneur who bottled soft drinks at his Lackawanna plant and delivered his product around the area in one truck emblazoned with the slogan “Check That Thirst with Try-It Bottled Beverages.” When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, he immediately picked up a local beer, Phoenix. Of course, so did dozens of other distributors, crowding the market. But a decision in 1946 to acquire the rights to distribute Anheuser-Busch products got the company off and running. Adding Labatt to his growing stable of products in 1949 made Try-It even more competitive. Still, when twenty-nine-year-old Gene Vukelic, after stints in the Marines and with Cottrell Bus Sales, joined his dad in 1960, the company was struggling. Employing a mantra he lives by today—hard work, attention to detail, preparation, and courage—he gradually pulled the company along, expanding, acquiring new brands, and understanding that growth in the beverage business had to be exponential, even in a shrinking marketplace, if they were going to make it.
By 1996, Try-It had grown from fifteen employees to 250, from four trucks to fifty-five, and had moved into a state-of-the-art facility on Walden Avenue. In 2004 son Paul Vukelic, president and COO, formed a subsidiary, Balkan Beverage, to distribute soft drinks like Red Bull, Arizona Tea, and, appropriately, Jana water from Croatia. A year later son Jeff moved east to run Saratoga Eagle Sales and Service, thus expanding into the Capital District and bringing the total employees of the company to over 500. Try-It is now making plans to build an addition onto its already huge facility.
While the numbers are impressive, Gene Vukelic will tell you that it’s service that keeps them on top. “Every year in a survey of local retailers we are first in customer satisfaction,” he says. “We deliver, stock shelves, merchandise, put up advertising, and rotate stock for our retailers. If someone is out of beer on a weekend, we’ll get it to them. If someone has draft beer tap lines that aren’t working properly, we’ll service them.”
Try-It is active in community affairs like the Erie County Fair and the Taste of Buffalo and in many charities that help the less fortunate. “We earn in the community and we give back to the community,” Gene Vukelic notes. “The company began with a foundation of trust, loyalty, teamwork, accountability, and quality service, and these qualities are still going strong.”
Try-It Distributing, Inc.
4155 Walden Ave., Lancaster