The founder of Las Vegas Lee’s Discount Liquor stores, Hae Un Lee,was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October 2020 and passed away on August 27, 2021 at a local hospital. Lee was 79 years old and unarguably left a lasting impression on his loved ones and the city of Las Vegas. However, his success story began with a lot of hard work and determination to overcome the odds he had stacked against him.

In The Beginning…

Hae Un Lee was born in Korea in 1942 and graduated from Dongguk University with a bachelor’s degree in economics and a graduate degree in business. For a decade in the 1970s, Lee worked as an investigator of drug traffickers in Seoul at the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs. However, Lee was not happy with the quality of life or education that Seoul offered his family. So in 1980, Lee moved to the United States with higher hopes for the future. Upon arriving in “the land of opportunity,” Lee stayed with relatives in Las Vegas. The job hunt quickly became a depressing experience as he found himself only able to get menial and temporary gigs largely due to the fact that he couldn’t speak English. That’s when Lee decided to take fate into his own hands.

Lee’s Liquor: The Epitome Of The Entrepreneurial Spirit

In 1981, Lee opened a liquor store in the Las Vegas Valley called Plaza Liquor. At the time, he had no idea it would become a chain of stores called Lee’s Discount Liquor. The success we know of today didn’t happen overnight and it was anything but easy. Lee put in a lot of hours and sweat equity, working seven days a week and frequently doing 12-hour shifts. During his entrepreneurial journey, Lee also worked late-night shifts as a busboy for a casino in downtown Las Vegas to earn some additional income, which proved to pay off in the end.

Hae Un Lee
Lees Liquor, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As of 2006, Lee operated nine of the liquor stores located in the Las Vegas Valley and in 2012, his son, Kenny Lee, took over daily operations of the company’s 17 store locations. Hae Un Lee had no plans of retiring from his position as chief executive officer and remained significantly involved in the business. With 22 locations around Las Vegas, Reno, West Wendover, and Mesquite, Lee’s is the largest liquor retailer in Nevada, employing over 300 people with total gross revenue approaching nearly $150 Million. Lee’s business philosophy was smart and simple: Focus on offering low prices, a wide selection of products, and convenient locations to customers.

Business Ventures Beyond The Booze

The greatest entrepreneurs are those who are always looking for ways to improve and new ideas to implement. In this regard, Lee proved to be a true visionary who made the most of the opportunities living in America afforded him. In addition to making a name for himself in the Las Vegas community as the owner of Lee’s Discount Liquors, he developed a resume of many other successful ventures.

  • Lee helped organize plans for a new local bank, First Asian Bank, which would serve Asian entrepreneurs. Lee and businessman James Yu were among the board members for the bank. Lee’s Tavern, a sports bar and steakhouse, opened in Mesquite around the same time.
  • In an effort to expand the local Korean culture, Lee and Yu purchased an old Albertsons building and strip mall with plans to renovate it into an Asian shopping center known as Koreatown Plaza. Located on 10 acres of land it includes a 200-seat food court, a 30,000 sq ft Korean grocery store, and Lee’s Korean BBQ. The shopping center has been used as an event space for the Asian community.
  • Aside from Lee’s Discount Liquor, Lee also owns another alcohol retailer, Strip Liquor, a higher-end store located on the Las Vegas Strip with tourists as the brand’s main target demographic.

Raising The Bar With Philanthropic Endeavors

During his lifetime, Lee was a well known philanthropist who believed in giving back to the local community. For nearly 20 years, he ran Lee’s Helping Hand, a nonprofit organization that put millions of dollars back into organizations throughout Nevada including Lou Ruvo Center For Brain Health and Spread The Word. Additionally, Lee’s Beer & Tequila Experience and Lee’s Wine Experience are annual fundraisers for Lee’s Helping Hand and his foundation has contributed more than $1 million to support children’s charities, education, families, and communities in Las Vegas.

It should come as no surprise that Lee was the recipient of several awards and honors over the years. In 2002, Market Watch Magazine named Lee as retailer of the year and in 2005, the Nevada district office of the Small Business Administration named Lee as small businessperson of the year for the Asian Chamber of Commerce. In 2013, he was honored by the Las Vegas Business Academy during its second annual scholarship fundraising dinner and in 2019, Lee received a Dom Pérignon Award of Excellence at the 45th UNLVino wine and food festival.

Lee's Discount Liquor
AJFU, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lee was admired and adored by the Las Vegas community, with many words of support for the family being posted on social media after the news of his passing. Lee and his son, Kenny, are known for their authentic, funny commercials and billboards used to advertise the family business. Lee is survived by his wife, three children, and eight grandchildren. He will undoubtedly be loved and remembered by his family, friends, and all of Las Vegas. He did more than positively impact the economy and the lives of those around him; he proved what is possible when you believe in yourself and have the courage and commitment to pursue your biggest dreams.

All of us at the BLOQ parq (tBp) raise our glasses to Lee and his family. Honoring a man who lived his life to the fullest and left behind a legacy of which anyone would be proud. Let Lee be an inspiration to you and join tBp on our mission to prove that it’s never too late to take that entrepreneurial leap. Our multi-purpose community invites you to live, work, play, and thrive!

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