42.9709° N, 82.4249° W
Port Huron, Michigan
By Dale Hemmila
Customer service is in Andy Bakko’s genes.
Ask Bakko, owner of Wolverine Market in Port Huron, and he will tell you his customers mean everything to him. All who stop by his place of business will receive a cheery hello and long-time patrons will receive a friendly hug. A stop at Wolverine Market is not a stop at a usual party store.
Bakko’s focus on customers and community were ingrained in him at an early age. He and his family immigrated to the United States from Iraq in 1976 when he was just 14-years-old. His family flew from Baghdad to Detroit, where an uncle had immigrated in the 1930s. It was in the Detroit area that the family established a grocery business and Bakko began learning about commitment in the retail service trade.
“My dad and the family worked hard,” he said. “A lot of hours, sometimes 90 hours a week.”
After dropping out of high school after a year (he subsequently earned his G.E.D. in Port Huron), Bakko moved to the Blue Water Area when his family had an opportunity to purchase a grocery store in Marysville. Twenty-five years ago came the purchase of the Wolverine Market when it was housed across the street from its current site.
Two moves later, he continues to operate the business with his son, Nathan, and a handful of employees at its Huron Avenue location, much expanded beyond what it once was.
“We really wanted to go in a different direction than a basic party store,” he explained. “We have a deli, special wines and beers and cater to our customers. If they want something unique we try to get it.”
With likely the best beer and wine selection in the Blue Water Area, customers can pick up a 12-pack of Bud Light “or buy a $20 bottle of beer.” The variety of beer and wine seems endless and other services add to the store’s mission.
“We do gift baskets, wine tastings, beer tastings, single malt Scotch tastings, weddings and (work with) non-profits,” he said.
And it is the work with non-profits and area fund raisers that keeps Bakko busy outside of the store and well-known in the community as someone who gives back.
“I grew up watching my dad and when someone needed help, you helped them out,” he said. “I wanted to do the same. If I can be of help using my resources, that’s good.
“You get to know the people when you give back to the community and it comes back to you and it feels good. It’s the best advertising you can get, but that’s not what I’m looking for. It’s just natural to help.”
Bakko is very involved as an organizer and primary sponsor of the Port Huron Beer Festival, which began in 2013. It has been held each year in the fall along the St. Clair River at Kiefer Park in downtown Port Huron. Bakko works with the local nonprofit, Citizens for a Vibrant Community (CVC), to put on the festival. The now-annual event will mark its fourth year of this fall.
“Beer Fest is a lot of work,” Bakko said, “but it’s a neat thing that the community needs. We work closely with the CVC and it’s building up. The response has been really good and we need something like that.”
While his business and the community are important, Bakko hasn’t neglected his own professional growth, which has benefited his customers who come to the Wolverine Market looking for advice regarding his extraordinary wine selection.
A certified sommelier, Bakko is one of just 200 or so such wine experts in the state of Michigan. To become certified – sommeliers are trained in and knowledgeable about all aspects of wine service – Bakko was required to pass various tests to achieve different levels of expertise.
Bakko uses what he has learned about wine service, aging requirements, understanding wine producing regions and even knowing the laws and regulations regarding wine making to assist his customers.
“Knowledge is very important to be able to assess quality,” he said. “The more we know about the product we sell–people are hungry for information–my customers appreciate that.”
Again, for Bakko it all gets back to the people he serves.
So while wine, beer and liquor line the shelves at Wolverine, the best spirit in the place is Andy Bakko and his commitment to customers and community.