Back when Nick LaMantia was a schoolboy with a Budweiser backpack – a strip of duct tape over the name to make it kid friendly and school appropriate – all the products sold by L&F Distributors could fit on one shelf.
The Anheuser-Busch distributor was founded by LaMantia’s grandfather in McAllen in 1978. Then, the company only sold Anheuser-Busch items like Budweiser and Bud Light.
That was true of L&F until around 2008, when the company began expanding its product line. Now it sells everything from milk to scotch in every major town along the U.S.-Mexico border.
And although Budweiser remains king, the craft beers the company distributes fill shelves that cover an entire office wall in its El Paso facility.
The McAllen-based distributor continues to be run by the LaMantia family, and Nick officially joined the company in El Paso in 2010, although he grew up sweeping warehouse floors and loading trucks.
LaMantia’s grandfather, the company’s founder, had five children who are all active in the business today.
L&F Distributors expanded in 2008, buying El Paso’s Desert Eagle from Robert Brown and Clyde Scott. That purchase established the company as the king along Texas’ entire border with Mexico.
L&F’s territory also extends into New Mexico, where the company sells beer in Roswell, Hobbs, Alamogordo, Ruidoso and Carlsbad.
A New York Times article headlined, “How Beer Gave Us Civilization,” is taped to an office door at L&F’s El Paso facility. Behind that door, LaMantia works at a stand-up desk. But he is not often there and spends much of his time on the road selling beer for the family company.
In a display case behind LaMantia’s desk is his old Texas A&M University football helmet.
LaMantia, 29, grew up in South Texas, in Carrizo Springs. When he was 8, the family moved to McAllen. He earned a bachelor’s degree in agribusiness from Texas A&M.
Since expanding into El Paso, L&F has also become heavily involved in the community, and the company opened its Stars Scholarship Fund to El Paso in 2013.
The fund has helped more than 10,000 students along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas receive a higher education and raised more than $21 million since its start a decade ago.
In El Paso, L&F’s fundraising event has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and featured speakers such as Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, and NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
LaMantia sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about how the craft beer invasion has changed the business, why “macro beers” like Budweiser remain king in El Paso, why it is important for a company to be involved in the community and his NFL dream.
Q: Did you always plan on going into the family business selling beer?
My dream was to go play in the NFL. That was a big deal for me. I played college football at Texas A&M.
Q: What position?
I was a fullback. But fullbacks are a dying breed, and I wasn’t good enough. It was a dream at best.
The beer business has always been of great interest to me, and I have worked in the industry since I was about 13.
When we were younger, we would load trucks. Actually, when we first started, we swept floors in the warehouse and cleaned bathrooms and all that kind of stuff. During Christmas time, my dad and I would go out and check the stores and refill the shelves.
I like sales. I like talking to people, meeting people and stuff like that.
Q: How large is L&F Distributors’ territory?
We cover basically all along the border with the exception of the Del Rio area. We also cover the southeastern portion of New Mexico, with Roswell and Hobbs and the Carlsbad area.
Q: Does that make L&F’s territory one of the largest?
No. We’re humble in size.
Q: What are your top sellers?
Budweiser and Bud Light. That’s our claim to fame and, honestly, it is a phenomenal beer and a great brewer to work for. Michelob Ultra, right now, is doing so phenomenal. It is just on fire.
In 2009, we really got into the craft beer and non- Anheuser-Busch products. We have one of the largest portfolios for Texas craft. We have Rahr, Southern Star, No Label, Cedar Creek and many, many others.
We have a very unique portfolio on the Belgium side. We have Mexican imports.
In our warehouse you can find anything from hefeweizens to bocks to lagers to pilsners.
Q: How big is craft beer?
It’s what’s really exciting right now. But craft in the El Paso market, compared to Albuquerque, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Denver, is much smaller.
So in those markets it can be anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent craft, and craft basically means artisanal made and anything under, say, 500,000 barrels.
Q: Is El Paso a decade behind the craft trend?
I wouldn’t say we are 10 years behind the craft scene; we just have a different craft scene. We have a different taste palate.
It is hot here, so we can’t drink extra special bitter. If you’re on the mountain, you can drink it because it is a bit colder and a little bit more alcohol will warm you up.
But here in El Paso, you have chili, salt and other foods that give us a different taste palate. El Paso is a huge lager town.
Overall, craft is very, very exciting in El Paso but Bud and Bud Light are still king.
Q: When you were a kid what did the company sell? Mostly Anheuser-Busch products?
That was it. We were almost exclusively Anheuser-Busch until 2008.
Another thing that is really unique is that we also sell water, energy drinks, teas and milk. So we have a vast portfolio.
Q: Budweiser made some waves by airing a Super Bowl commercial that took on craft beer. It declared in the ad that Budweiser is “proudly a macro beer.”
I told you earlier how when I was a kid I had a Budweiser backpack. I owned who I was. I couldn’t get away from that. I am extremely proud of the people who own who they are.
For Budweiser’s ad, I thought they took ownership of what they are trying to do. They are trying to sell a beer to a lot of people.
The craft market should be enthused that a brewery that has been around since 1876 has given a lot of acknowledgment to the craft market.
Q: That’s part of what surprised me about the ad – that Budweiser felt it had to acknowledge the trend.
The commercial goes on to say: “It’s not brewed to be fussed over…. Let them sip their pumpkin peach ale. We’ll be brewing us some golden suds.” I’m not sure if the commercial is laughing at millennials or trying to appeal to us.
I think it was a mixture of the two. They knew when they wrote the ad that they were going to raise some eyebrows. The ad was memorable and got people talking.
Q: I imagine you’ve learned a lot about beer, wine and liquor working here. I’m guessing you didn’t bring much beer into the locker room when you were in college.
I didn’t drink a lot, I wasn’t a very big partier. Because I grew up around it, I had a respect for it. You have to treat alcohol with respect.
It can hurt you and other people if you don’t. Alcohol is meant to be enjoyed with friends and family or paired with a meal.
Q: How is the company involved in the El Paso community?
Stars is huge for us. It is a non-profit program my grandfather started back in 2002. It is a scholarship program supported by the community.
So if you buy a table for $2,500 at our yearly fundraiser, the money goes directly to fund scholarships. The company and Anheuser-Busch, we underwrite all the expenses.
The only reason why the Stars program is successful is really the community, so we just facilitate. What the community puts in is what we are going to get out of it.
We believe in being involved in the communities in which we operate, because they give us a lot and we better be damn sure to give them back much more.
Stars raised nearly $170,000 this year for scholarships in El Paso. That is compared to $140,000 last year.
I sit on the Junior Achievement of the Desert Southwest board. I sit on the El Paso Community Foundation board. We are involved with the Special Olympics, the El Paso Chihuahuas baseball team.
We also just launched a program with the city offering free rides through the city’s 211-call service so people don’t drive drunk.
Q: What do you do, and what do you like about your job?
At the end of the day, I basically do anything I can to sell beer. So I travel a lot.
What I tell people is that El Paso is an up and coming city with a lot of growth and a lot of potential and a great story to tell. It’s located in a tri-state area you can’t duplicate anywhere else.
Q: Overall, how are sales?
Sales are good. We couldn’t be happier, but we always like to sell one more case than we did the day before.
Q: How did you come to El Paso?
Back in 2008 we bought the distributorship here in El Paso from Robert Brown and Clyde Scott. I moved here in 2010.
Q: What do you think of El Paso?
I love it. I think it is a great city. It is a lot of fun and is close to what I’m used to, having grown up in a border town. This is home. I do love my job – I really do. And I love working here in El Paso because the city is awesome.
Q: From your experience selling drinks, where do you see the industry heading? What is its future?
Oh, boy. That’s really hard to say. It can change, literally, at the drop of a hat. Craft beer isn’t going anywhere.
What I really like about the movement is people are much more aware of what they are drinking. The beauty of alcohol is that there is so much variety that there is bound to be one specifically suited for your taste buds, and no one should critique what you like or what you don’t like.
There are also going to be offshoots of all kinds of crazy, new, upcoming things that we can’t imagine.
The other day I was in Austin and I saw this bar basically turning alcohol into a gaseous mixture in a bottle and then you suck in the gaseous mixture and the alcohol hits you with a buzz. So I have no idea what the trend is going to be in 15 years.
We never thought seven years ago we would be in the wine and liquor business and now we are very much in the wine and liquor business.
Q: I’ve heard it said that an Anheuser-Busch distributorship is like a “license to print money.” Is there any truth to that?
If that was the case, that would be awesome. Maybe I could have a bigger office. No, there is no truth in that.