Walking into a Lee’s Discount Liquor store may be the closest thing Las Vegas has to an adult candy store.
Lee’s Discount Liquor is currently Nevada’s largest alcohol retailer, with the majority of stores ranging from 5,000 to 31,000 square feet.
The stores are known for their inventory of thousands of discount alcohol products, as well as rare and hard-to-find spirits, beers, and wines.
Perhaps even more notable than its enormous selection of libations were the faces of the company: Hae Un Lee, a South Korean immigrant who founded the company over 40 years ago, and his son Kenny Lee who helped his father operate the family business in various roles.
Both Lee and his son were especially known as local celebrities for their humorous tongue-in-cheek Las Vegas ads and commercials, as well as their philanthropic giving.
The Lee family was often touted as an immigrant success story who was able to find the American Dream.
“I’m a very hard worker. My thinking is positive. I never think negative. I never ever worried. The United States is the best country in the world. There’s a lot of opportunity if you work hard. But if you don’t work, forget it,” the company founder said in 2007.
Tragically, Hae Un Lee passed away at 79 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer in August 2021. Three months after taking over as CEO, Kenny was tragically killed in a car accident near West Wendover, a small town a long the state’s border with Utah.
At this time of publication, there is no official word on a successor for Lee, but one thing that is certain is that both he and his father left an impactful legacy on the Las Vegas business community.
In light of both Hae Un and Kenny Lee’s passing, Vegas News takes a look at the company’s history and legacy in Las Vegas and beyond.
Mr. Lee Pursues the American Dream
Hae Un Lee was born in Jecheon, South Korea in 1942. According to a 2016 profile piece by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, he worked as a government drug-trafficking investigator in Seoul during the 1970s.
Feeling that Seoul was becoming overpopulated and lacked a good education system for his three children, Lee took his family to the United States in 1980. He stayed with relatives in Las Vegas in what was originally considered just a temporary move.
A friend convinced him to try his hand operating a dry cleaning business in New York, but
he grew weary of the industry and returned to Las Vegas after a month.
Lee — who didn’t speak English when he immigrated to the United States — found it difficult to find work other than temporary, unskilled jobs.
Message In a Bottle
One day, Lee purchased a bottle of Scotch whiskey from a local retailer and noticed that the employee never spoke to him during the entire transaction.
In a 2016 interview, Kenny Lee remembered how his father enjoyed drinking and noticed how easily supermarkets sold alcohol.
“He would go there, just grab a bottle, put it down, and they’d tell him the total and he’d give them the money,” Kenny said. “As he was walking out the store he said, ‘You know what, this is the perfect business because I don’t actually have to talk to customers.’ ”
After receiving a $100,000 loan from a family member, Lee opened his first liquor store, Plaza Liquor, on the corner of Jones Boulevard and Spring Mountain Road in 1981. He later changed his shop’s name to A Plaza Liquor to be listed at the beginning of the local phone book, and later to A Plaza Liquor Barn until a California chain with a similar name threatened to sue him.
He finally went with the name Lee’s Discount Liquor and operated his store as one of Las Vegas’ few standalone liquor stores at the time.
Success didn’t come easily at first. The shop only netted $875 during its first month and earned less than $50,000 in gross sales during the shop’s first year. He also soon found out that customers would have questions about the shop’s products, which would require Lee to learn English.
Nevertheless, he persevered — sometimes working 15-18-hour shifts, seven days a week — and improved his English over time.
He originally operated his business similar to Californian liquor stores that sold other items besides alcohol. He ultimately changed the business model to solely focus on the sale of discounted liquors. Within a year and a half, the store was bringing in close to $30,000 in monthly sales.
He eventually opened a second location in 1984 and bought the building for his first store in 1989 to help increase profits. Lee’s Discount Liquor would continue to expand across the Las Vegas Valley.
Lee’s son, Kenny Lee, started working as a stocker in 1992, and later as a cashier, before being moved up to vice president six years later.
Hae Un and Kenny Lee were known for their humorous approach to advertising.
Lee’s Builds a Las Vegas Empire
Lee’s Discount Liquor became a local Las Vegas business success story by offering thousands of different alcohol products, including spirits, wines, and beers at discount prices. Lee’s Discount Liquor became the largest alcohol retailer in Nevada by the mid-2000s and still remains so today.
There are currently 22 locations spread across the state, including Mesquite, West Wendover, and two stores in Reno.
The brand also became well known for its commercials and billboard ads featuring Lee and his son Kenny humorous — and sometimes eyebrow-raising — messages like “a party without alcohol is just a meeting”, “you look like I need a drink”, and “Alcohol: it’s cheaper than therapy.”
“When we go out, people recognize us and want a picture with us,” Kenny Lee said in a 2015 interview. “It’s almost like we’re cheesy local celebrities. But my dad gets a kick out of it.”
Besides running his liquor store empire, Hae Un Lee was heavily invested in Las Vegas’ Korean-American community and served as the president of the local Korean Association in 1992.
Lee and business associate James Yu opened a shopping center on the northeast corner of Spring Mountain Road and Rainbow Boulevard known as Koreatown Plaza in 2009, which still exists and includes a 30,000 sq. foot Korean supermarket. Lee and his family were involved with opening and operating several other local businesses, including Lee’s Korean BBQ in the Koreatown Plaza in 2012.
The Lee family was also known for their philanthropy through Lee’s Helping Hand Foundation, a nonprofit 501(c)3 charity organization that raises money for local charities.
Kenny took over as the company president and oversaw the majority of the stores in 2012, but his father would still serve as the company’s CEO until his passing and showed no signs of wanting to retire.
“I don’t have retirement plans. I love work. I enjoy work. If I work 10, 15, or 18 hours, I’m not tired,” Hae Un Lee said.
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