As one of the few Black businesses located on historic Barrack’s Row, Chat’s Liquors on Capitol Hill has been keeping people in high spirits for decades.
The store was opened in 1934 by Neil Chatlin, months after the repeal of prohibition in the racially segregated District. The late Burnett Williams Jr. bought the store in 1978 and it currently operates as an independent wine and spirit retailer, specializing in original, small-production libations from across the globe.
His son, Burnett “Burnie” Williams III, who now oversees the store’s day-to-day operations, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the industry and knows his products well. That’s because he tastes his wares before they are sold.
“I have to know about the products that I sell to my customers,” he said. “When I taste my products, I am looking for consistent flavor and whether it is a fit for our shop. I am the one who makes all of the decisions on purchases and I need products that sell.”
He’s a hands-on type of manager, hosting wine tastings in his store regularly and working alongside his small staff at the store stocking shelves, sweeping the floor, processing sales and dealing with suppliers and vendors.
Williams, who co-owns the store with his mother, Ophelia B. Williams, and sister Dr. Opal B. Williams, said Tito’s Vodka has become his best-selling spirit, followed by Black Draft Vodka. He said beer sales are solid, too.
After graduating from Bowie High School and Temple University, earning a business degree finance and strategy, Williams never gave a second thought to working for someone else.
“I wanted the opportunity to continue the family business,” he said.
When his father died in July 1999, Williams stepped up his involvement in Chat’s and developed ideas about how to grow the business.
His mother owned Ophelia’s Flowers Cards & Gifts next door to Chat’s and he consulted her on business matters. Ophelia ran her flower shop from 1983 to 2009, when she retired.
Presently, Ophelia’s Fish House operates where the flower shop used to be. Ophelia owns the property rights to the location.
Williams has adjusted to the changing demographic of the Barracks Row neighborhood. When his father bought Chat’s, the surrounding area had a predominantly Black population. Today, the neighborhood is mostly White and so are his customers.
However, he treats all customers the same, he said.
“The people who come by the shop are neighborhood folks,” Williams said. “I know most of them by their first name. I also know what they are going to get. It isn’t unusual for some of my customers to ask, ‘What am I drinking tonight?’”
Williams knows that there are few Black-owned liquor stores in the District and he understands why.
“D.C. once had a liquor store on every corner,” he said. “Then in the 1990s, the competition got to be too much. Many small liquor stores couldn’t survive because the bigger stores would squeeze them out. Plus, the Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration started putting a moratorium on who owns a liquor license and that forced some people out of the business.”
Williams said Chat’s will particularly focus on online sales.
“We won’t branch out to a second location,” he said. “We will stay here and focus on upgrading our online purchases and tapping into the smartphone market. That way we can operate 24 hours, seven days a week.”
Customers such as Anthea Hartig, who recently moved to the District from San Francisco, are the key to Chat’s success.
“This is a lovely and friendly store,” Hartig said. “The first time I came here to shop was a great experience and I have been coming ever since. The staff here is every knowledgeable about spirits and are pleasant to talk to. This is a good neighborhood proprietorship.”