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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, April 19, 2014

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In Marketplace

Otto's has been in the Oakland Avenue space for 10 years. (PHOTO: Royal Bonde-Griggs)

In Marketplace

Employee Brooke Litwack describes her coworkers as family. (PHOTO: Royal Bonde-Griggs)

In Marketplace

Otto's "Wall of Shame" is a collection of hundreds of confiscated fake IDs. (PHOTO: Royal Bonde-Griggs)

In Marketplace

All seven locations have a wide selection of beer, wine and liquor. (PHOTO: Royal Bonde-Griggs)

Otto's provides community with libations, jobs


More than 64 years ago, Otto Kujus opened a liquor store. Decades later, his son, Dave, has expanded the business to include seven locations, all honoring in name his deceased father.

The seven liquor stores include Otto's Wine Cask, 4600 W. Brown Deer Rd.; Otto's Oakland, 3476 N. Oakland Ave.; Otto's Cedarburg, W63 N157 Washington Ave.; Otto's Menomonee Falls, N88 W15413 Main St.; Otto's Elm Grove Liquor, 15380 Watertown Plank Rd.; Otto's Beverage Center, 4163 N. 76th St. and Otto's Bayside, 8850 N. Port Washington Rd.

The Oakland Store was the latest acquisition, purchased in 2001. Prior to that, it was a liquor store called Siegel's for many years.

Since 2001, Otto's have become "employee-owned," meaning that after 1,000 hours of work and five years of service, Otto's employees are vested and granted stock options. Currently, about 35 employees are in the program. Otto's employs 120 people in total, and all employees receive a 10 percent discount on beverages.

Part-time employee Brooke Litwack has worked at Otto's Wine Cask for three years. She is currently a college student, but says she might make it to her five-year anniversary and beyond. "I really like it here," she says. "All of the employees and management are like a big family."

Tom Brendemuhl, who is currently the manager of Otto's Oakland, has been in the liquor industry for 38 years and with Otto's for 17 years. He says most of the store managers have been with the company for 35 years or longer.

"I really enjoy interacting with the customers," says Brendemuhl. "I like retail. I'm a people person."

Every year, Otto's sends multiple full-time employees to different parts of the world to learn more about alcohol. Recently, a group returned from Argentina and Chile where they were learning about wine and vineyards. Later this year, another group will head to California.

"We've sent people to France, Italy and Spain, too," says Brendemuhl.

The seven locations sell beer, wine and liquor, but each store specializes in different libations depending on the location and the clientele. The Oakland store is a bit of an anomaly, because it sells a lot of cheap beer to college students, but also a lot of vodka, rum and wine.

"We have a lot of college-aged customers, but we also have Shorewood, Lake Drive and professors who like wine," says Brandemuhl. "We're not just a college store."

But college students do buy a lot of liquor at Otto's Oakland. Brandemuhl says his store sells the most half barrels, particularly of Keystone which sells for $57 a half barrel. (A half barrel of Miller, for the sake of comparison, goes for $99 and Lakefront sells for $139 per half barrel.)

"We also sell a lot of 30-packs of cans of Keystone," says Brandemuhl.

Because of the college student demographic, the attempted use of fake IDs is common. So common that the top section of the store's northern wall is collaged with phony identification cards. Otto's has a black light to better identify fakes, and employees are given an incentive of $10 for every tampered ID they confiscate.

Otto's employees are instructed to card anyone who appears to be under 30. If the employees comes across a clearly fake ID, they do not call the police unless the presenter demands it back.

"We tell them we can take it and they can leave, or we can call the police and have them determine if it's real or not," says Brandemuhl. "We have a couple fake IDs that are really, really bad. You see them. One is made from a Blockbuster card, and if you flip it over, you actually see 'Blockbuster' on the back of it."

Brandemuhl says they nab two or three fake IDs every week, and even more at the beginning of semesters.

Otto's also has a policy that if a group of three or four people come in together, they all need a valid ID to purchase alcohol. Often, he says, the underaged person will try to leave the store so the of-age people can buy the booze, but once they're identified as a group, they all must have proof-of-age identification or else the sale is not made.

Otto's organizes and presents free-of-charge wine tastings for multiple groups and organizations in the city, including the UWM Alumni Association, Cardinal Strich College, the St. Francis Children's Center and more.

"Our goal is to give really good service," says Brandemuhl. "And we give back to the community when we can."


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