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Ratu’s Liquor and Market

June 17, 2017

At first blush, Ratu’s Liquor and Market, in Wilmington, may seem like many small Vermont stores. Take a step inside, however, and discover it’s not at all like anything, anywhere. Chalk it up to the colorful island vibe, the ever-present throb of reggae music weaving its way through the aisles or the store’s logo –  a noble lion emblazoned over the colors of the Jamaican flag keeping watch over everything. The atmosphere doesn’t go unnoticed. “usually, when people come in, they say this is the coolest liquor store they’ve ever been to,” Owner Jennifer Betit-Engel says.

People in liquor store

Ratu’s Liquor and Market can trace a lot of its DNA back to Christian Engel, who originally hails from Fiji and lived in Hawaii. Betit-Engel grew up in Vermont, and met her husband while studying in Seattle. When it came time to settle down, the two wanted to live near family. Engel preferred to live somewhere other than Fiji, she explains, and the cost of living in Hawaii is high – which made Vermont the natural choice. The couple purchased the store from Betit-Engel’s aunt four years ago this August, and it became theirs on Dec. 9 of 2013. They then set about making it their own. “Christian wanted to have some of the culture from his upbringing,” Betit-Engel says, explaining that the store’s name, ‘Ratu,’ is the word for ‘king’ from her husband’s home country. “And the name is easy to say without any kind of accent.”

Cool decoration arch

They filled the 1,500-square-foot store with craft beer, fine wine, cigars, coffee, kombucha, and a selection of spirits. And while the warm breeze of the islands never seems far away, there is a very strong Green Mountain vibe throughout. “It’s boutique-like and it’s stuffed,” Betit- Esays. “We carry pretty much everything Vermont offers, a lot of special-orders and high-end liquors.” She says the couple especially enjoyed creating the Vermont section of the store.  Visitors will find a wide range of local craft beers, and almost every spirit crafted in Vermont, from Metcalfe’s Maple Cream Liqueur, (which she lovingly describes as “home-made Baileys with maple syrup”) to some locally- crafted and highly respected whiskey.

“Christian has lots of conversations with people about bourbons,” Betit-Engel says. “He loves the Japanese whiskeys, but he tries really hard to find ones that are very affordable, but aged well – the Old Grand Dad Bonded, the Tincup American Whiskey. But WhistlePig is his favorite.” It’s yet another detail that the couple – parents of 7-year-old son Matai and 8-year-old daughter Talia – put in place to set the Wilmington store apart. Then there’s the omnipresent dub-bass thump of the store’s soundtrack. “Music is big for us,” Betit-Engel says. “So it’s reggae music, all the time. We laugh sometimes because we’ll be looking at the (security) camera and people come in and jam out and start dancing down the aisles.” It all goes into creating an atmosphere where customers feel welcome. Special orders are the norm, as much of the clientele consists of tourists and seasonal employees. Betit-Engel and her husband go out of their way to stock the shelves with items particular to those workers who arrive with the first snows. Drop by at the right time of the year, visitors will even find bottles of Pisco stocked – a drink particularly sought-after by Chilean and Peruvian workers who flock to the area during the ski season.

 “We really care,” Betit-Engel says. “It’s not always about numbers, it’s about relationships. If somebody mentions something and we have it the next time they come in, it makes them feel good that we care enough to bring it in for them. It’s not a store, it’s a family. I know it sounds cheesy, but that image is important. We want it to be their store. We want that for our store. We want it to be a place where  ‘everybody knows your name.’  It’s a store where people feel it’s their place.” Or, as it might be said rather succinctly on Fiji, “Bula.”