This past week, O’Looney’s celebrated its 16th birthday, no small feat for any small business. Looney was a young 27 years old when he started O’Looney’s, a business he says has changed considerably from when it first opened. Looney’s family first discussed doing a small bottle shop downtown, but realized they would be best suited in the as-yet undeveloped Chenal Valley area.
“Initially, what we wanted was a fine wine shop in far West Little Rock serving the neighbors,” says Looney. “And now that focus has shifted. We want to be the fine wine shop that you think of when you want to have a conversation around wine, which is our passion.”
Passion is the operative word when it comes to Looney. So much of O’Looney’s is rooted in his love for fine wine and excellent service, something that can’t help but come across in conversations. Looney says that all started when he discovered his love for Chardonnay.
“It was just a panoply of flavors and feelings and thoughts and emotions that, for some reason, wrapped up in that drink,” says Looney. “I love things like gin and tonics, but for some reason it didn’t have quite the interesting story like Chardonnay.”
While that love of good wine helped get his business started, Looney truly began his journey to wine expertise several years later. That’s when his friend, Lee Edwards (Haus Alpenz), began driving to Memphis to take classes with the International Sommelier Guild. What Edwards brought back with him lit a fire under Looney, and he set out to find formal wine classes available in the South. He quickly found these classes would come with a sacrifice.
“I went to Dallas every weekend for 12 weeks one summer,” says Looney. “I went down and took nine hours of classes and drove back. And that didn’t certify me for anything, but that began my odyssey of formal education, and now I look back on that really fondly.”
Since then, Looney has completed a staggering laundry list of certifications, including:
- Certified Specialist of Wine from the Society of Wine Educators
- Advanced Certificate Holder with The Wine and Spirit Education Trust of London
- Certified Sommelier and completed Teacher Education Program with the International Sommelier Guild
- Professionnel du Vin with the Confrérie de la Chaine des Rôtisseurs
And while it’s this consuming love for wine and education that has helped define both Looney and his business (a total of four certified sommeliers are on staff at O’Looney’s), Looney understands that he still has a business to run. That’s why O’Looney’s customers can find anything from the most common vodka to a bottle of scotch that weighs in well over $3,000. That gives Looney a unique opportunity to reach both regular consumers and wine lovers alike.
“It’s probably equal parts passion and mercenary retailship,” says Looney. “At the end of the day, we have to put shoes on babies, that’s our goal. We have to pay our rent, pay our staff a fair and living wage, help them grow personally and professionally. And if we set that as our purposes with a dual purpose of excellence in education, I think it will all take care of itself.
“Because we have intentionality toward excellence in service in knowledge, and because we have a commitment to the education and development of our staff … as a team we can talk about that, and that’s not the experience that most people have when they go in their neighborhood shop. So we have outside success in those areas because we have intention toward it.”
Looney is simply a rare breed, and not just in Little Rock. The drive for quality in all areas combined with an acute self-awareness is special enough. Couple that with a genuine heart for making both himself and everyone around him better, and it is not hard to see why Looney has developed a reputation as one of the most respected people in Little Rock’s beverage industry.
“At the end of the day, if I can create a sustainable business that helps enrich the lives of my co-workers, I win,” says Looney. “Because that’s what lights a fire under me, this is my job every day. I get to go to work every day and sell my passion every day. I get to do what I love day in and day out. That’s awesome.”