“I have a vision, I stick to it, and I see it all the way through,” Sam Patel said, then repeated that last phrase for emphasis: “all the way through. … Nothing can stop it. The coal is really hot, and the engine’s burning, and it’s fierce. So we’re gonna get through together.”
Sam moved to Maine from Chicago eight years ago and opened Friendly Discount Beverage, on Forest Ave. in Portland, with some help from his uncle and a family friend, who own the Friendly Discount in Westbrook. The Portland store, which sells wine and beer and smokes and such, was sufficiently successful to allow Sam to pay back his family backers and assume sole ownership of the business. Then, about two years ago, he was ready to take the next step: greatly expanding Friendly’s selection by adding spirits.
Roadblock No. 1: Maine strictly limits the number of retail liquor licenses available in the state, allowing each municipality to have a set number of licenses based on its population. At the time, there were no licenses available in Portland, and unless the city suddenly experienced a huge surge in population, there wouldn’t be any more any time soon.
So Sam did what a man of vision and unwavering will does in that situation: he began working to change state law to increase the number of liquor licenses. He met with legislators, who agreed to write and sponsor such a bill, then testified and lobbied for its passage, writing letters and e-mails and rallying friends and customers to his cause on social media and at the counter.
And it passed! Portland got another retail booze license this year. Sam promptly applied for it, and …
Roadblock No. 2: … he didn’t get it. To the credit of the state bureaucrats in charge, they obviously didn’t favor Sam’s application just because he made the license he was seeking possible. They likely applied the guidelines on the books, which take into consideration the proximity of other liquor-license holders, so as to not concentrate the booze purveyors in any given neighborhood. RSVP Discount Beverage isn’t far down the avenue from Friendly’s.
The new license was awarded to Hilltop Superette, the corner store atop Munjoy Hill formerly known as Colucci’s. The nearest spirits seller to Hilltop is down on Commercial Street — probably just as close as RSVP is to Friendly’s, but during tourist season, to many Hill people, the Old Port may as well be another nation (and a hostile one, at that).
So, as before, Sam stuck to his vision, and made another boldly unexpected move: he and his new wife, Radhika Shah Patel, who’d just given birth to their son Kiaan, bought Hilltop and the license that comes with it.
And they’re still not all the way through. Because Sam’s vision is of what Hilltop can become once he and the team fully enhance and expand the store’s selection of groceries and prepared food, remodel the interior, redo the exterior, and add outdoor seating, among many other, smaller projects. His goal is to have everything done in time for a grand reopening party next spring. He’s already set the date, of course: May 21, 2022.
Hilltop’s existing liquor and wine aisles will be expanded. Sam’s already revolutionized the beer coolers, bringing in a lot more craft brew, but he said longtime locals shouldn’t worry that Hilltop will be gentrified into irrelevancy. He promises the store will continue to cater to both the condos owners at the top of the Hill and the residents of public housing at its base.
“I always envisioned taking a page from Friendly’s book and making things affordable,” said Sam, who will continue to own and operate the Forest Ave. store. “Not price-gouging, by any means — we know many people that do those things. Just making a creative selection.”
For example, “We don’t need four [varieties of] SpaghettiOs, and we certainly don’t need, like, six ketchups,” he said, as stood before that sad little aisle. “I’d like to take a page from Trader Joe’s book and really hone in on, like, one or two of an item in a particular category, and really push that, and try to utilize as many local things as I can.”
New chef Tyler Johnson — a veteran of Monte’s Fine Foods who’s also been cooking at Ramona’s, the tasty breakfast and lunch place at the foot on the Hill — is also trying to get more local food on the menu. He said his focus is on “cooking from scratch and getting away from pre-fab; doing approachable food well, with locally sourced ingredients if I can.”
The hand-cranked Italian sausages for which previous owner Dickie Colucci gained fame and glory are not coming back this summer (Dickie sold the family business to a real-estate guy named Bill Simpson in 2014, after an arson fire heavily damaged the property the previous year), but customers can expect even better pizza, sandwiches, some world cuisine, and vegetarian/vegan options. “We’re a corner store, so you might as well appeal to as many people as you can,” Chef Tyler said.
Kaylie De La Cruz has worked at Hilltop since 2015 and is excited by the new energy and ownership. “I think it’s a way to get [Hilltop] more community-based again,” she said. “Especially with the pandemic hitting, the [previous] owner couldn’t be here as much as he had wanted. With Sam and Radhika, it’s gonna turn it around and make it so we can be more a part of the community again, like we used to be.”
“There’s no store with no great people,” Sam said, “and so what I’ve really tried to tackle, [as has] my wife, has been really helping the current staff, both professionally and personally, in whatever they’re facing right now. Transition is not easy, by any means, and certainly a lot of them went through transitions multiple times with a lot of promises. Some were met, some were not, but we’re here to fulfill all of them.”
The fundamental promise to employees is the ability to “work in a good environment,” Sam added. “They don’t have to work sickening hours. Dial it back and enjoy life, have a balance. This is going to be a family business.”
A chalkboard at the entrance last month asked customers what changes they’d like to see, and someone wrote that the store should carry city trash bags. Sam made the arrangements with City Hall and the bags were in stock within a day. The customers, especially the longtime regulars, are sometimes literally in charge.
Like Richard. When Sam first showed up at Hilltop as the new owner one early morning last month, he saw Richard helping put the deliveries away. “I said, ‘Do you work here?’” Sam recalled. “He’s like, ‘No, this is what I’ve been doing for like 30 years.’”
“That guy knows everybody, everything,” Sam said of Richard. “I love sharing a cup of tea or coffee with him in the morning. He’s here yelling at me if I’m running a minute behind, so I’d like to say that he’s my boss.
“Then Ruth,” Sam continued, “who’s in here every day with her walker, having coffee. She loves to grab all of her groceries, leave them on the counter, have three or four coffees, sit outside, come [back] two hours later, and then she’ll pay for everything. Let her do whatever she wants to do.”
Radhika works for the global investment firm T. Rowe Price, where she does corporate financial planning and manages a “billion-dollar book of business.” While we spoke at the store last month, I could see a customer arranging spare change on the counter to make payment. I asked Radhika what it was like to go from the world of high finance (where she plans to continue to work) to the neighborhood corner store (where she’s suddenly, and unexpectedly, spending an inordinate amount of time).
On her computer screen at the firm, “It could be a hundred dollars or a billion dollars, and it’s a zero on a spread sheet,” she said. “But here, it’s like every penny counts, and you can see the hard work that goes in by everybody to make that penny real. It’s not just a decimal and it’s not just a zero; it’s important and it’s worthwhile for everybody.”
Working at Hilltop is “definitely more enriching than just being in a spreadsheet,” Radhika said. “The value is definitely here. I don’t think there’s a value of money when you go into the world of high finance. It’s more about the power and the size of your business, not the work and sweat and labor and love that goes into it.”
Hilltop Superette (135 Congress St.) is open Monday-Saturday from 6 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 7 a.m.-10 p.m.