Handpicked barrels of bourbon and tequila greet customers as they step into the central hub of the Shell gas station in downtown Lake Orion. These barrels frequently rotate to display brands like Blanton’s, New Riff
and Don Julio
, and are personally selected by general manager Anthony Panos – often with the help of a few of his regulars.
The display marks the entranceway of the tiny metropolis that is Central Square Super Store, an expertly-stocked maze of beers, wines, and spirits from around the world.
As patrons make their way past the smell of coffee from the adjoined Dunkin’ Donuts, they’re met with racks of international wines, high-end liquors, seltzers, and mixers. Endcap shelves offer assortments of bitters, moonshine, flavored whiskies, and ciders. But the store’s most surprising feature is its expansive beer cave, jam-packed with an incredible variety of craft and artisan beers.
Anthony Panos says the trick to a great selection of beverages is to spend time listening to customers. Photo: Joe Powers.
“You listen to what your customers want,” Panos says. “They’re able to tell you what style they’re looking for – whether it’s a double IPA, or a barrel-aged beer, or if it’s a lager or a pilsner. Sour beer has grown exponentially since we’ve started, so right now we have a lot of different sour beers. You’ve got to listen to what’s happening on the market and you have to listen to your customers.”
Panos has run the store since 2012, when he was brought on by owners Kenny, Carlo, and Derek Koza, three brothers who he’s been friends with since childhood. Since then, he’s also taken on another store location in Oxford while working to create environments that set a high bar, especially when it comes to product diversity and quality customer service.
“We definitely try to make everyone feel welcome over here,” he says. “We want to be able to provide for everyone. You’re able to find stuff here that you won’t find at other locations. We keep things clean and organized for customers as well, which is something that we take seriously. Customer service and our selection are the two major things we try to separate ourselves with.”
Anthony Panos carefully selects beverage options for the Shell gas station in downtown Lake Orion. Photo: Joe Powers.
The sheer volume of the liquor, beer, and wine stock at Central Square makes the store eligible to receive limited and rotating items from exclusive distributors. The shop's broad range of local and state brands is also notable, and from Petosky stone gin to B. Nektar mead, Panos makes a point to stock items that are Michigan-made.
“Whether it’s a big Michigan brand or a small Michigan brand, we always try to give them a shot,” he says. “We’ve carried products from people locally – just everyday people in the area. We carry local honey, local beef jerky, local beers, local wines. And smaller brands that our customers might have seen while they were on a vacation up north – we’ll try to get those in for them. We definitely try to keep it in the community as much as possible.”
Panos personally tastes a significant number of his products to ensure that he can help his customers find what they’re looking for. He samples as many items as he can from vendors so that he’s able to direct his clientele accordingly.
“You definitely have to taste,” he says. “When we pick barrels of bourbon, you have to sample multiple different bourbons and pick out what tastes best. It’s important to understand the flavor characteristics of each liquor and describe them to the customers. A lot of the vendors, they have wine shows. So you can go and they’re sampling all their wine, or they’re sampling all their liquors, or they’re sampling all their beers. The selection is one thing and helping customers is another thing – it’s very important that you learn from your customers that know more than you and educate the customers that are just learning about certain products.”
In addition to keeping a sizeable inventory, Panos strives to maintain the versatility of both his stores, which are open 24 hours a day.
“We want to provide customers many options to come here,” he says. “When they’re getting gas, they can get their coffee on their way to work. Or if they’re on their way home and they want to get a nice bottle of liquor or a good four-pack or six-pack of beer, they can find something different and unique. When people are looking for that new item, they know where to go. They know that we have whatever new or seasonal items that are available. Instead of seeking it out, they can just come here.”
And they do. Panos has established relationships with many of his customers, some of whom will drop by at least once a day. It’s not uncommon to see him wave at a familiar face, stop to chat with a regular, or go out of his way to assist a guest with their purchase.
“You build relationships with a lot of different people and you learn about the community,” he says. “That’s always something that keeps me going – you get to interact with a lot of different people every day. You learn that in a small business, 80 percent of your business is from 20 percent of your customers. Those are the people that support you – you see them every day. A small business like this – it’s just acknowledging, listening to, and communicating with your customers. You’re able to build relationships and grow your business from the people that come into your store every day. It’s very important.”
In addition to Center Square, check out the following Metro Detroit gas stations and party stores for their noteworthy beer and wine selections:
The Wine Village
15005 13 Mile Rd. Warren, MI // (586) 415-2200
Barrels & Vines at Shell Station
31786 Woodward Ave. Royal Oak, MI // (248) 850-7737
Livonia Liquor & Fine Wine
38675 Ann Arbor Rd. Livonia, MI // (734) 953-2980
Red Wagon Shoppe
1613 Livernois Rd. Troy, MI // (248) 404-9999 // redwagonshoppe.com
Rusty Keg Party Shoppe at BP Station
3951 Metropolitan Parkway, Sterling Heights, MI // (586) 268-6200
Napa Valley Beverage Co.
35030 Mound Rd. Sterling Heights, MI // (586) 264-8320 //www.napavalleybeverageco.com
9400 Woodward Ave. Detroit, MI // (313) 871-7600
33644 Woodward Ave. Birmingham, MI // (248) 723-4455
All photos by Joe Powers / Insitu Photography.