Inside Dixie Liquor

Isabel Binamira/The Hoya

Isabel Binamira/The Hoya

“You want one?”

The unmistakable voice of Sean Clark rang out across his tidy store. Clark, who co-owns and manages Dixie Liquor on M Street, handed his customer a clear plastic cup shallowly filled with a dark amber liquid. An apparent regular, the customer took the cup, and after a brief cheers with Clark, tapped the cup on the counter and took his shot.

“See you soon,” the customer said as he walked out the door.

Since 1934, Dixie Liquor has provided the students of Georgetown University with a close and reliable source of alcohol. Clark, his associate Stephen Hill and a band of loyal Georgetown students work the Dixie Liquor counter, fueling a hefty portion of the Hilltop’s perpetually thirsty party scene.

But they don’t run Dixie just to supply a demand; they run Dixie to have a good time.

Mad Dogs of Georgetown
Tuesday through Saturday, Clark can usually be found at his post behind the register, waiting for students, neighbors and passersby to come into the store. He and the staff at Dixie spend Tuesdays and Wednesdays restocking their shelves with Burnett’s and their walk-in cooler with Natural Light, sharing war stories from epic weekend nights and boasting their drinking accomplishments in any and every spare moment. This is all in preparation for the swarms of students who climb down 35th Street in search of alcohol every Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Those weekend nights especially bring the store to life. Employee Stephen Hill, a native of Detroit who graduated from Howard University in 2012, says that there is no way to predict what will happen at Dixie between sundown Thursday, when the store fills up, and midnight Saturday, when the store closes until the following week.

“Last Saturday, I left here on a party bus,” Hill recalled, to illustrate his point. “Now I’ve got an ankle brace.”

Sundays and Mondays, however, Dixie is closed to customers, so Clark can spend time with his family in nearby Arlington, Va., where he commutes from by cab throughout the week. With Dixie Liquors keeping him at work many evenings, and trips to local bars like J. Paul’s and Old Glory keeping him busy many others, he reserves Sunday nights for his family and is known to close shop early to return home if business is slow.

But while at work, Clark pays close attention to the fluctuations of the student lifestyle. Not only does he increase stock for obvious occasions like Homecoming and Georgetown Day, but he also stays late to make sure that students can get alcohol when a just-announced snow day calls for a last-minute, late-night party.

“When we hear school is closed, we stay open until midnight, and we make sure sidewalks are clear,” Clark said. “We’re going to get you guys drunk. Responsibly.”

This type of friendly accommodation is indicative of Clark’s entire attitude toward his store. Clark said his favorite part of working at Dixie is the people he meets — customers and employees alike. So it is no surprise that his favorite day to be at Dixie is Homecoming, when graduates flock to the store they knew so well during their college days.

“Georgetown Day is fun and reckless, but Homecoming you get to see old faces,” Clark said, noting how the small storefront quickly becomes packed with friends he has made over his 15 years at the store. “It really just ends up being a place to hang out.”

Even Hill measures his time at Dixie not in calendar years, but by the number of Homecoming weekends he’s worked.

“I’ve been here for two, almost three Homecomings,” Hill said “Homecoming that year [2013] was my first real day on the job. It was a real s—show.”

What’s on Tap
Preparing for the weekend, however, requires a grueling weekly process of ordering and stocking the store to keep up with Georgetown’s significant demand for alcohol. Clark noted that while the volume of liquor and beer has stayed mostly the same in his 15 years at Dixie, there has been a shift in Georgetown students’ tastes, which have gravitated toward more inexpensive alcohol options.

“Business is not what it used to be. They’re not drinking less, but they’re drinking cheaper,” Clark said, noting the effect that the 2008 economic downturn had on Dixie. “People who were top-shelf went to middle-shelf, people who were middle-shelf went to bottom-shelf, and people who were bottom-shelf went to beer.”

Dixie Liquors moves a staggering amount of alcohol through its compact store each week, much of it in Burnett’s, Andre and Natural Light. Clark estimates that each year, his store sells more than 40,000 Natural Light case-equivalent units — a common term in the industry that allows vendors to aggregate can, bottle and keg sales in one figure. Dixie’s 40,000 CEUs make the store’s sales equivalent to 960,000 12-ounce cans or 5,880 kegs. Clark mentioned that, until Costco opened in 2012, Dixie Liquors was the No. 1 provider of Natural Light in the District. Anheuser-Busch distributor Capital Eagle would not confirm this figure.

Clark reviewed typical orders of Andre over the past few years and estimated that he sells more than 10,000 bottles each year. For Burnett’s plain and flavored vodka, the number is roughly 6,000 1.75-liter bottles.

“That’s actually f—ing absurd,” Clark said, realizing the sheer volume of liquid courage he facilitates each year. “I love it.”

However, Dixie Liquors is not the only store that competes for the lucrative Georgetown market for watery beer and barely drinkable vodka. Some students prefer stores with less personality. Telmo De Morais (COL ’16) noted that Dixie Liquors can be overpriced, and he never found the atmosphere as welcoming as other stores.

“It’s the last place I go to, even though it’s close by,” De Morais said. “That new place on Wisconsin is really nice.”

Hop Cask & Barrel opened at 1717 Wisconsin Ave. in June, replacing Wagner’s Liquor and Wine, which closed at the same address in January of this year. After an extensive renovation of the old storefront, Hop Cask & Barrel now caters to more than just the thrifty student demographic, according to manager Sean Rowly.

Rowly stressed that his store maintains many of the specials that made Wagner’s popular among students, like an $11.99 special on 30-packs of Natural Light. But he has also expanded features like optional delivery and a rewards program, and boasts what he claims to be one of the best selections of alcoholic beverages on the East Coast with more than 200 whiskeys, 400 craft beers and 1,000 wines.
Clark said that Dixie, on the other hand, has no plans to start a delivery service.

“Part of the fun is coming down here. We have music, we have the games on,” Clark said. “And if you’re too lazy to walk down the street, re-evaluate the way you’re doing things.”

Longtime patrons Zach Rego (MSB ’16) and Jake Brown (MSB ’16)were both officially hired at Dixie Liquors last month.

“The people here are all good friends,” Brown said. “When I come into work, I get to meet new people, and we always have fun.”

Sean Clark, the owner of Dixie Liquor. Isabel Binamira/The Hoya

Sean Clark, the owner of Dixie Liquor.
Isabel Binamira/The Hoya

Soaked in History
Dixie Liquors opened its doors for the first time in the year after Prohibition ended, making it one of the oldest liquor stores in the area. Clark testifies to the establishment of the Dixie name in the D.C. area, saying that especially in the 1960s and 1970s, Dixie was a hotspot for the thriving Washington social scene.

“Knowingly or unknowingly, anyone who grew up drinking around D.C. has had at least a drop of liquor from this place,” Clark said. “Everyone used to come down here.”

When previous owners M R S Enterprises went bankrupt in 2007, Dixie Liquors went up for auction. The “it” status of the store prompted longtime employee Clark and his business partner, who has asked to remain anonymous, to purchase it — along with the traditions, legends and clientele that came attached.

Because the store is so old, it has been grandfathered into many unusual liquor license features. Dixie can legally operate from 7 a.m. to 12 a.m., 365 days a year — even Sundays, Christmas and Thanksgiving. Furthermore, Dixie has a coveted tasting permit, which allows Clark to serve alcohol on the premises (within certain restrictions).

Over the years, Dixie’s age, visibility from the Key Bridge and proximity to the high-prestige townhomes of Georgetown have made it a go-to store for many recognizable figures in the area. Since he started in 2002, Clark says he has seen plenty of famous faces pass through the store, including President Bill Clinton, Superbowl XVII MVP John Riggins and pornographic film actor Ron Jeremy.

Furthermore, he counts members of Congress, national news anchors and prominent members of the executive branch as regular customers, although he preferred not to mention their names to respect their privacy. Among the most meaningful visitors Clark recalled was a group of alumni who came to the store this summer for their 50th business-school reunion. Clark remembers them sporting old-school bow ties, sportcoats and polished wingtip shoes. They had come in for a bottle of whiskey to share among themselves.

“When they walked in here, one of them said, ‘Everything up on campus has changed so much, but Dixie has stayed about the same,’” Clark said. “I was so glad to hear it, I grabbed a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue [Label] off the shelf and opened it up for them.”

No Last Call
Dixie’s venerable founding date makes it older than many traditional staples of the Georgetown University lifestyle — 28 years older than The Tombs, 38 years older than the first Students of Georgetown, Inc. service and 66 years older than Georgetown Day itself. As such, Dixie Liquor takes very seriously its responsibilities to create and maintain tradition among Georgetown students.

Take, for example, the story behind then-senior and now-Dixie employee Billy Wujak. One day at Dixie in 2002, Wujak showed Clark a list of clubs at Georgetown, amazed at the funding that each club was allocated from the university. Clark suggested Wujak should start a club of his own; several weeks later, he held the inaugural Georgetown University Grilling Society grill on the front steps of Dixie Liquors.

Clark said that the plume of smoke in the store was good reason to move the weekly grill around the corner to the Dixie Liquors parking lot, and the demand for GUGS burgers week after week was good reason to expand operations and move up to main campus.

“They’ve come a long way from cooking on the stoop of Dixie to where they are now,” Clark said, noting gratefully that each week, GUGs still brings food for him at the store.

While GUGS grew independent of Dixie over the years, some traditions remain a mainstay of the Dixie Liquors atmosphere — most notably the Mad Dog Challenge, a task that entails racing employees and patrons of the store to finish an MD 20/20. Anyone can challenge anyone else in the store to the task, although certain employees and patrons are better known for instigating them than others.

Clark explained that a proper Mad Dog Challenge must have certain elements. First, the stereo must be playing an appropriate song, oftentimes Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone,” but other options are available. If the store is busy, Clark will then announce the challenge to the other customers. Next, each participant removes the cap from his bottle of Mad Dog. When the song’s beat drops, participants cheer, tap the bottle to the counter, and — in Clark’s own words — “face it.” The first person to finish his bottle wins.

Hill noted that Dixie has temporarily stopped stocking Mad Dog, as students flocked to the store in their first days back from summer for a welcome-back Mad Dog, resulting in seven challenges in a single day. After so many successive Mad Dogs, Hill admitted that the staff needed a break.

“There are really no winners in the Mad Dog Challenge,” Hill said.

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