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New owners carry on legacy of old business

Jerry and Jennifer Donahoe recently bought Mills Fine Wine & Spirits, which had been owned and operated by the Donner family for nearly 70 years.

On one of those cold, misty days this week, I stopped by Mills Fine Wine & Spirits, the iconic liquor store at the foot of Main Street, to meet the new owners, Jerry and Jennifer Donahoe. The Donahoes bought the property and the business from the Donner family last November.

The Donners had owned the business for nearly 70 years. Hillard Donner or his daughters, Janis Rotner and Cindy Reiner, along with Cindy’s husband, Gary, had been running the place since Hillard and his father, Joseph, bought the place in 1946. A true gentleman in every sense of the word, Hillard Donner, now 88, is known in the community for his philanthropy – the Donner Pavilion at Anne Arundel Medical Center was named in his honor.

Mills was one of 10 Annapolis businesses honored by the MainStreets Annapolis Partnership with a business legacy award last May. The Legacy Awards recognize businesses that have been serving the community for at least 50 years.

So the new owners have taken on this legacy as well as the business, and they intend to carry on with both proudly. Jen led me back trough the aisles stacked high with bottles – the 2,500-square-foot store features domestic and imported beer and more than 2,000 wines from Europe and South America, according to a story in the Annapolis Capital – and back through the barreled-ceiling vaults that lead to their spare office. The blank walls seemed to show that they’ve been too busy launching their new venture to bother decorating with any personal touches.

Jerry and Jennifer knew each other as midshipmen at the Naval Academy – they both graduated in 1994. They met again in San Diego five years later and worked together in the IT company Jerry had established with his brother in 2001. He sold the business several years ago.

Jen earned her MBA at the University of Maryland. They were married in 2003 and now live in St. Margarets with their three small children. “We were looking for our next venture, and when we put the youngest kid on the bus to kindergarten, we started looking around,” he explained. “Someone introduced us to the Donner family, and we got an inkling that the business might be for sale. Once we found it, we were very interested. We first met in August and closed the deal in November.”

“We’re all in our 60s,” Cindy Reiner told a reporter from the Capital, “and we feel like it’s a business that requires more youthful people to run it. I feel the Donahoes are the perfect owners because they fit the bill.”

The Donahoes think it’s a perfect match as well. “I love wine,” Jen said, “and we love Annapolis. I love that Mills has always been with a family.”

“I love the history behind the store,” Jerry agreed, “ – and that it’s just seven miles from home. In our last business, we had one customer – the federal government.”

Jen, added, “This is much more personal. It’s fun meeting everyone that comes in, whether they’re visitors from around the world or right here in town.”

For the future, the couple is thinking about renovating the upstairs and using what is now storage space as a meeting room where they can conduct educational seminars and wine tastings. The second-floor windows overlook the Market House and the turning basin of the Market Slip at City Dock.

They know there will be challenges in renovating a 70-year-old building, but, as Jerry says, “This business is a lot less complex than the last one,” adding that he’d rather deal with liquor laws and permitting issues than cyber espionage and security clearances.”

They have three full-time and three part-time employees, most of whom stayed on from the Donners’ management, but they will not be absentee owners. “We’ll be here all the time,” Jen said. “This is going to be our career. People warned us of the grind of the retail business, but we want to see this business flourish.”

Mills Fine Wine & Spirits

87 Main Street

Annapolis, MD 21401

410-263-2888

www.millswine.com/

facebook.com/millswine

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