Behind the Scenes: More on the Syrian Liquor Store owners

In the college town of San Luis Obispo, there are many liquor stores to cater to a crowd that likes their booze. Campus Bottle, Cork N’ Bottle and Sandy’s Liquor are three of the most popular liquor stores in the city. The stores, especially Cork and Campus, are hotspot destinations for the young population of San Luis Obispo to get their weekends going.

But the booze isn’t what keeps students coming back; it’s the welcoming, friendly employees that the customers interact with. They elicit laughs a good conversation over almost every transaction.

It seems like these employees have been a part of every Cal Poly student’s four years in the town. But, these liquor store owners haven’t always been in the United States. The families that own these liquor stores migrated to the United States from Syria.

Infographic by Leah Qiu

After learning this, our group wanted to learn more about these men and their journey to the United States. We wanted to know why they came. We wanted to know why they started their liquor businesses. We wanted to know who they were and their place in San Luis Obispo.

It was a confusing reporting process at first. We didn’t know any of the connections between these families. We weren’t sure who was related and who was running the show. Over time, we were able to connect the dots between the families and report a coherent story about them.

During some interviews there was a small language barrier. Sometimes the sources would be afraid of not understanding a question and answering it wrong. We built our rapport by having some friendly conversation before our interviews, in which we threw more serious questions their way.

We slowly learned a lot about these liquor store employees. Their journey to the United States was something they were initially reluctant to talk about. Eventually, we learned much about their motivations as business owners in a new country.

They have accepted their new home in San Luis Obispo, and they feel warmly received here as well. The employees are on a first-name basis with many of their daily customers.

Some transactions with customers are very straightforward and all business. Other transactions have lead to enlightening dialogue between the customer and the seller.

“Some guys, they come here and they have something bad inside,” Cork N’ Bottle employee Mark Jalhoum said. “They need to talk to someone.”

Jalhoum strikes conversations with seemingly all of his customers. One customer, Jalhoum explained in interview, found relief in a sad moment with the conversation in the store.

“It’s different from customer to customer, some guys they don’t like to talk,” Jalhoum said. “Some guys they came to [laugh], they came to tell you something, they came to say hi to you, so it depends.”

This is the reason why we wanted to do this story. The connection between the customer and businesses are unlike any other. Friendships are made. It’s never about the liquor, and it never was for these men. Their business was their business, but it’s even more important for them to connect to the community, which they have done better than many mom and pop shops in the city.

Yes, they are nice, but don’t try to show them a fake I.D. and argue that it’s real. They are ruthless when it comes to that stuff. It may work at some bars downtown, but the men at these liquor stores will call you out on your bullshit. One time I was making a purchase at Campus Bottle when a young man tried out his fake I.D.

“You can leave or you can wait for the cops bro,” the clerk said after inspecting the card.

As the young man was walking out, the clerk starts to laugh.

“Nobody’s from fucking Wyoming, bro,” the clerk said.