As Eric Dunaway put his final touches on the day’s beer display, he received a call that would leave most grocery store beer buyers dumbfounded. The entire portfolio of beers he’d anticipated days ago wasn’t just delayed—it was stuck at a port on the Atlantic because the dock workers were on strike.
Dunaway didn’t flinch. As the primary beer buyer for Jungle Jim’s International Market in Clermont County, Ohio (20 miles north of downtown Cincinnati), he’s learned to take these hiccups in stride. Jungle Jim’s sells food from over 75 countries; it’s Dunaway’s job to guarantee the beer department matches the international grocer’s inventory in scale and variety—hence the hand-selected collection of over 4,000 local, national, and global beers. The latter keep him permanently on his toes.
“International beers are tricky,” he said. “There are so many more links in the supply chain trying to get a beer on the shelf here in Ohio, something’s bound to go wrong at some point.”
Dunaway built the Jungle Jim’s beer department from the ground up when the Eastgate location opened in 2012. As a beer and geography enthusiast with a background in high-volume retail sales and operations, curating beers for this family-owned market that attracts 50,000 weekly shoppers was a dream job. It started with simple, shelves stocked with no-brainers like Sam Adams (at the time, craft beer was just catching on in the region). Dunaway slowly introduced smaller breweries like Ommegang to test the waters and build his boss’ trust. Success stories—like the time he helped Cincinnati’s MadTree brewery launch packaging—paved his way quickly.
“When MadTree launched, they were draft-only, but about five years ago they talked to us about launching their packaging and we were on board,” he said. “We had a huge display with 60 cases, and we sold out of every beer in like three hours. It was wild.” Dunaway’s relationship with Cincinnati’s third-largest brewery has remained so strong that they even brew together. Everybody Gose to the Jungle was unveiled at Jungle Jim’s International Craft Beer Festival in June.
Over the past seven years, Dunaway has transformed Jungle Jim’s once tidy and spacious beer department into a massive game of Tetris, 4,000-beers strong. Sam Adams went from having its own section to no more than an eighth of an aisle. An array of national favorites and rare breweries like Lao Brewery Co. from Laos and Desnoes & Geddes from Jamaica took its place.
Dunaway and his counterpart at the Jungle Jim’s Fairfield store, Ferdinand Sneed, have relatively similar inventories. They test the waters with about 10% of their own individually selected brews, then compare notes to see what’s sticking. The latest brew they’re geeking out over? Golden Pheasant by Pivovar Zlaty Bazant in Slovakia.
“It’s from the eastern side of what used to be Czechoslovakia,” Dunaway said proudly.
Researching unique beers may be the more interesting part of his job, but Dunaway wasn’t hired to simply curate a drool-worthy collection. He was hired to sell these rare brews to a predominantly rural and suburban audience—an audience that, seven years ago, wanted the likes of Budweiser above all else. Preferences are slowly changing, Dunaway said. It’s in large part thanks to his balanced approach.
If he wanted to, Dunaway could focus solely on exotic beers. He has impressive beer resources at hand—like the time he ordered 14 cases of Baltica for a customer’s Russian get-together with a four-day turnaround. But, given Jungle Jim’s won’t sell expired beers, Dunaway knows an extreme approach is far from savvy.
Instead, he buys a mix of “weird but not too weird” brews to keep the average customer engaged. Since most shoppers visit Jungle Jim’s to expand their horizons as it is, Dunaway is met with a curious, receptive crowd.
“We obviously want to have things people know that will sell themselves, but we also have enough knowledge here to show you what you might like next,” he said. “That’s how we stay relevant, and that’s something most stores on our scale can’t offer.”
The Jungle Jim’s tasting bar, which features a daily rotation of 43 beers from 30-some different breweries (all hand-selected by Dunaway), is one of the grocery store’s best strategies for introducing customers to new brews. Dunaway keeps easy sellers like Budweiser off the tap list, with similar styles like Kona Longboard Ale at the ready to push shoppers outside their comfort zones.
“We have people come up to the bar and say, ‘Give me a Bud Light,’ without even looking at the menu,” he said. “This gives us an opportunity to steer them toward more independent and better options.”
Beyond expanding customers’ horizons, the tasting bar is Dunaway’s most accurate gauge of how his beer’s faring. “I’m constantly asking our bartenders two things: What’s selling that we need more of, and what are people asking for that we don’t have?” he said.
The Jungle Jim’s tasting bar, situated midway between the produce and the cheese aisles, grew in tandem with Dunaway’s beer selection. It started with 12 beers, fed directly from a refrigerator below the counter. The early popularity and potential return on investment helped Dunaway convince executives like “Jungle” Jim Bonaminio (yes, the founder “Jungle Jim” is still part of daily operations) to invest in this intricate new tap system.
“Larger kegs are way better on cost per ounce, so that was an easy justification,” he said of his Willy Wonka-esque keg system. The kegs sit in a hidden, chilled vault, just beyond the frozen-food aisle. A set of massive double tubes with two insulated lines funnel ten beers each up from the vault, above the beer aisle, and down into the tasting bar hookups. Five lines of glycol at 28 degrees keep the beer cold in transit.
“It’s not the absolute fanciest system I’ve ever seen, but it’s close,” he said of this fan-favorite masterpiece.
Hundreds may flock to the tasting bar’s Friday pint nights, and giddy beer collectors frequent the aisles to stock up on global finds. At the end of the day, though, Jungle Jim’s most popular beers remain local. The best-sellers come from Ohio’s already flourishing beer scene, including breweries like MadTree and Rhinegeist. Dunaway stocks his department—which he’s come to view as his own personal beer collection—accordingly.
“The best thing about my job is that I’m a beer geek first; I just love beer,” he said. “So having a job where literally all of the beer comes to me? I’m like a kid in a candy shop.”