West Wendover, Nev. • It’s no mystery why Lee’s Discount Liquor, Nevada’s largest liquor retailer, opened its 22nd and largest store last month in the tiny town of West Wendover.
“It’s the same reason the casinos came,” said Mayor Daniel Corona, “our proximity to Utah.”
The giant warehouse is 30,000 square feet and stocks more than 6,000 products, said manager Steve Robinson. That’s more than double Utah’s newest state-owned liquor store in West Valley City, which is just 13,500 square feet.
Low prices are what most Utah customers were looking for on Tuesday. Driving 123 miles from Salt Lake City is a small sacrifice, they said, to avoid Utah’s high state markup — 88 percent on wine and spirits, 66.5 percent on heavy beer.
Since the store opened Oct. 25, employee Angela Brown said it’s not unusual for customers to buy several cases at a time and spend $500 or more on their purchases. “They come to stock up the bar,” she said.
In addition to discount prices, Lee’s Liquor has other perks that customers won’t find in a typical Utah liquor store, including full-strength beer in refrigerated cases; minibottles; samples on the weekends; and convenient hours seven days a week.
Mayor Corona said while West Wendover only has 5,000 permanent residents, each year more than 4 million tourists — the majority from Utah — come to gamble, which is illegal in Utah.
“With our main industry being tourism, [the new liquor store] fits right in,” said Corona. “People come out here to let their vices run free.”
But he has a warning to Utahns crossing the border just to buy booze. “Don’t do it, it’s against the law,” he said. “There are steep fines and the police will confiscate it. It’s not really worth it.”
Under Utah state law, it is a class B misdemeanor for individuals to bring in beer, wine or spirits from another state. The punishment is up to six months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines.
The only way that Utahns would get cited for the crime, however, is if they are stopped for another violation, like speeding or improper signaling, said Lt. Todd Royce with the Utah Highway Patrol.
“We don’t have any border operations specifically looking for alcohol,“ he said. “However, we do have troopers that work in Wendover, and if they stop a car for another reason and come across alcohol, a person could be charged and the alcohol confiscated as evidence.”
It’s the same question people ask when going to Evanston, Wyo. — just 83 miles from Salt Lake City — to buy fireworks or beer, said Royce.
Plenty of Utahns, like Myrn Stebner, are willing to take their chances. On Tuesday, Stebner was in West Wendover to play bingo, but stopped by Lee’s Liquor for a bottle of Crown Royal, which at $24.99 is “by far cheaper than in Utah,” she said. (In Utah a 750-ml bottle of the Canadian whiskey costs $29.99.)
Natasha Woodside and her family also stopped by the new store. They were surprised at the size. The Utah liquor store in her town “is really tiny and doesn’t have a very big selection,” she said.
It also doesn’t have minibottles, which Woodside’s father was fond of collecting. “It will be cool to restart the collection,” she said, as she asked the clerk to pull out different bottles from the glass case. Some of them cost just 99 cents.
Lee’s Discount Liquor was founded 35 years ago by Hae Un Lee, who emigrated from South Korea. In 2015, Kenneth Lee, the founder’s son who now runs the company, said it was counting on big returns from the new West Wendover store based on the success of its outlet in Mesquite, Nev.
“One of our best locations is the Mesquite unit, which is about 20 minutes from St. George, Utah,” Lee told the trade publication Market Watch Magazine “Utah is all state-run and priced so outrageously that people will drive to stock up. The average ring at the Mesquite store doubles that of Las Vegas. Customers there purchase by the case.”
Corona agreed that Mesquite customers played a role in the new store.
“The company had repeatedly heard from Mesquite customers, ‘When are you going to be in Wendover?’ ” he said. “I don’t think Lee’s had even heard of West Wendover. They had to look us up.”
Grand opening at Lee’s Liquor
The grand opening of the new Lee’s Liquor in West Wendover will include free food, liquor samplings and special prices.
When • Saturday, Nov. 11, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Where • 1355 W. Wendover Blvd, West Wendover, Nev.
Regular store hours • Open daily at 8 a.m., closing at 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; midnight on Friday and Saturday; and 9 p.m. on Sunday
Correction: West Wendover gets 4 million tourists annually. An earlier version of this story had an incorrect number.