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Shaken, stirred, or online?

An e-commerce start-up could soon give businesses searching for wholesale liquor online the one-stop shop they're looking for.

An e-commerce start-up could soon provide some hangover relief to businesses searching for a central place to order wholesale liquor online.

To date, licensed restaurants and retail stores ordering wholesale alcohol from distributors have relied largely on information-jammed price books, telephone calls to sales associates, or multiple searches on Web sites that often specialize in one type of alcohol.

New York-based start-up plans to help change all that. In September, the company is launching a service that will bring distributors of beer, wine, and spirits to its site. Through the service, customers will be able to use a database to search for products by category, price specification, region, and other particulars.

Bevaccess is testing its service with a group of New York-based restaurants and retail stores, including Windows on the World, the W Hotel, Zachy's Wine and Liquor, and Towne Liquors. The company is also partnering with Robert Mondavi and Seagram Americas for promotions and advertising. The nation's second largest wine and spirits distributor, Charmer/Sunbelt Industries, has also signed on. The company said it is also close to inking a deal with several beer distributors.

Through the business, Bevaccess serves as the middleman, sending wholesale orders via email from customers to distributors, who pay a monthly fee for the listing service based on usage. Bevaccess also intends to make money off advertising.

Company co-CEOs Gregory Ahnert and Derek Bromley, both former alcohol wholesale buyers, said in an interview they started the company because they were frustrated by the cumbersome purchasing process.

While many wine sellers are now online, alcohol sales have lagged overall on the Net, partly because of strict state laws that regulate alcohol sales and differ state to state, analysts say. But Bromley said the culture of the restaurant business also impacts technological progress.

"This is a people business," he said. "The focus tends to be on floor operations. Manning a dining room floor takes many resources, many hours, with low margins--the investment in technology [isn't a priority]."

"The business has been known for slow change, and they need to change quickly to get up to speed," adds Ahnert. Indeed, the market is ripe for that change, he said. About 79 percent of restaurants reporting per-person check prices between $15 to $25 now have access to the Internet, and 75 percent of those restaurants have access to email, according to the National Restaurant Association, which has more than 30,000 members. Of those restaurants surveyed, 80 percent have liquor licenses.

As technology improves, expect other companies to join Bevaccess, as well as the more established, where customers can search for products by distributor, said Juanita Duggan, chief executive of Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA).

Unlike Beveragemedia, which expanded to a commerce site from an industry publication, the Bevaccess site is strictly a tool for buyers and sellers, said Ahnert. It's focused on becoming a powerful product and price-oriented search engine, Ahnert added.

Around the time Bevaccess will introduce its service, a San Francisco-based start-up called Naxon is also planning to debut, a Web site that promises legal wine delivery to all states. Customers will have access to a product locator on the site that will merge inventory data of all state wine wholesalers, the company said. Naxon plans to fulfill orders using an established network of wholesalers and retailers.

Duggan said the WSWA, a partner in the Wineshopper initiative, is hoping companies such as Bevaccess and Beveragemedia will license the technology to help build a common industrywide system for selling wine online.

"We're hoping it will become the Sabre system," she said, referring to the online system shared by the business-to-business travel industry.