K&L History Part 1: A Tale of Friendship and Fair Pricing
What’s the trick for long-lasting friendship? If you are Clyde Beffa and Todd Zucker, owners of K&L, the trick seems to be going into business together. Todd and Clyde met in 1947 when they lived across the street from one another in San Mateo. Legend has it that some sand was flung at their first meeting (they were two), but they nonetheless became thick as thieves. And, after 42 years in business together, they still are.
That seems an amazing feat, and, turns out, there’s an amazing story behind it! When we toasted the company’s 42nd anniversary at our holiday party in December, I realized how little I knew of it. And I wanted to learn more. So recently, Clyde and Todd graciously indulged my curiosity and told me the history of K&L, with all its twists and turns and intrigue. It’s not quite as saucy as rum runners and speakeasies, but there was a bit of fighting the law, and it did all start with a Playboy...
In honor of Clyde’s birthday yesterday, I’ll be posting a three-part series this week that gives readers a bit of insight into the men who made the magic happen at K&L.
The Booze Bombers
Clyde and Todd went to different schools and were all set to follow very different career paths in the late 60s. Clyde went into his family business and started a dairy ranch in Tracy, while Todd went into insurance. Eventually some friends convinced Todd to get into the liquor biz, and they started Parkside Liquors in San Francisco. But little did Todd know that it was a uniquely transitional time in the industry, and that he’d find himself right at the turning point.
Back in those days, there were stricter laws governing the sale of alcohol. Wholesalers had to publish prices, and retailers were required to sell at those prices or higher. It was likely a throwback to post-Prohibition regulations, but it wasn’t popular with retailers who wanted to offer competitive pricing, and there were some who fought the system—including Parkside. According to Todd, “Retailers decided to challenge the law, knowing that what we risked were fines and the potential revocation of our license. My partners and I were challenging the law by undercutting the posted prices. There were several dozen retailers that were visibly doing so, and some that were more discreet.” Called “bombing the price,” this practice was an attempt to make their businesses more competitive. The bombing business was booming.
So was Clyde’s, “just milking cows” as he says, and in 1971, he and Kay (“K” of K&L; Todd’s wife Linda is the “L”) got married. But, while on an airplane to their honeymoon, Clyde read a Playboy article on wine collecting that would change his life forever. (He chuckles at the fact that his wife was reading the more honeymoon-relevant Love Story.) Clyde: “Collecting wine was the rage in the United States at that time. Before that everyone drank spirits and cocktails. It looked like fun. I got bitten by the bug.” In 1973 he sold the dairy and moved to San Mateo. He was semi-retired and 28 years old. And here’s where he got “crazy into wine: I had a cellar. I’d go over to Wente and Concannon for tasting, and I joined tasting groups. In the meantime, I’m buying from Todd because he had good prices.”
In October of 1976, Todd and his former partners decided to go their separate ways, so Todd went to Clyde and said, “Let’s do this together.” But first, Todd went to see an attorney named Don Tenenbaum. According to Todd, “He felt there was a good defense challenging the constitutionality of the laws as written in California. He thought we had a strong case, despite the risks. Clyde and I decided to run the risk.” Clyde: “We teamed up with another retail liquor guy, selling out of our house. We delivered it. In November of 1976 we found a place called Ernie’s Liquor Store, but the owner didn’t want to sell before Christmas, so we opened on New Year’s Eve. It was a small crew. It went from there. We were bombers there too.” Todd says, “Right away we were in the doghouse with the ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control).”
In June of 1978, the whole game changed. Clyde and Todd were up to go to court to lose their license, but their attorney represented a bomber case just before theirs that would change history. The judge ruled in favor of the bombers, saying the law was against the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. The case then climbed the legal ladder to a State Appeals Board, the State Supreme Court, and finally all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. After several years in the system, the law was officially struck down in California, and all the accusations were cleared. Retailers were now free to set their own prices and pass savings onto their customers. That opened a new chapter for alcohol sales in California, and for K&L. Todd says, “We took a calculated risk. It’s an interesting story, but we were not great crusaders. We were just at a turning point.”
Stay tuned for Part 2!
- Kate Soto