It was beach or bust for Corey Adams. The cofounder of Southern Swells Brewing, in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, was dead-set on installing his brewery close to the Atlantic’s churning surf. Sun-baked beachgoers could grab après-ocean IPAs, a business plan that seemed as perfect as a cloudless beach afternoon.
The Southern Swells team scouted ocean-adjacent spaces, finding them small and expensive. As a solution, the real estate agent lobbed a spacious vacant restaurant in a strip mall, the one with a Bailey’s Gym. “They were asking for one-third of the price of anything at the beach with ample parking, free rent period, and tenant-improvement money,” Adams says.
Southern Swells signed a lease and opened in January 2017, with a taproom styled with mismatched wood and white subway tiles, and draft lines dispensing hazy IPAs as fruity as Florida oranges. “From the street, you’re not going to get excited looking at this strip mall, but once you get inside you’ll feel like you’re in a different world,” Adams says.
And when you leave, you can head next door to the Mini Bar for a coffee and donuts, maybe maple bacon and the ones inspired by Pop-Tarts. “They’ve told us on more than one occasion that we were a big factor for them considering this location,” Adams says of Mini Bar, which opened a year after the brewery. “Slowly but surely, we’re turning around the overall vibe of the strip mall.”
No one feels neutral about the strip mall, an inescapable sight and, in some cases, blight on the American landscape. The open-air commercial complexes, full of connected storefronts and usually fronted by large parking lots, contain modern-life essentials: grocery stores, pet shops, jewelers, nail salons, dry cleaners, accountants, gyms. Drivers arrive with errands in mind, accomplishing them posthaste before peeling off. Strip malls are necessary yet not necessarily pleasant, like a doctor’s office visit.
Of late, many house nothing at all, and breweries have begun rehabilitating strip malls’ reputation. By setting up shop in shopping centers, breweries are changing the public opinion one pint at a time and, in turn, attracting like-minded businesses. Can the brewery save the American strip mall?
As Beth May and husband Lane Fearing started surveying suburban Chicago locations for their brewery, Roaring Table, they envisioned a quaint, old standalone building with a ceiling that made guests crane their heads away from their beers. “We looked for two years in five different towns,” May says, only finding decrepit structures requiring costly renovations. They met a landlord in Lake Zurich, about 40 miles northwest of Chicago, who had an empty home décor store in a strip mall.
“The moment they told us the space was available I went, ‘No way. We’re not going to be in a strip mall,’” May says. Her husband went for a look, finding plenty of square footage, built-out infrastructure, and a Trader Joe’s two doors down, meaning semis could easily make deliveries.
They signed the lease and May, a graphic designer who studied interior design, helped transform the vanilla box into an airy, stylish taproom done up with decorative tiles and wallpaper, as well as window film blocking parking-lot views. “Once we got past the idea of a strip mall, everything fell into place,” May says. “We’re on a really prime corner, and 70,000 cars go by every day. In the parking lot alone, 20,000 cars go through. Had we chosen a different location, we wouldn’t have done as well as we have done.”
Now, customers pair weekend grocery runs with Roaring Table’s pilsners, IPAs, and wild ales aged in a foeder. “Oddly enough, a lot of men want to go with their wives when they get their nails done at the salon next to us,” May says, laughing. Additionally, since Roaring Table debuted in August 2017, three new restaurants have opened in the complex. “People have really embraced this idea of taking food into the taproom from these local businesses,” she says.
Breweries can get the ball rolling on retail investment in moribund strip malls. During the ’70s and ’80s in Charleston, South Carolina, the Ashley Plaza Mall was the city’s premier shopping destination before falling into decline, reconfigured as a strip mall called Ashley Landing.
South Carolina’s strict zoning laws once relegated breweries to light and heavy industrial spaces, typically far from the city center. “To be a community brewery where people live was difficult,” says Michael Biondi, the co-owner and general manager of Frothy Beard Brewing Company. The law changed several years ago, around the same time Frothy Beard was looking to leave its industrial home for a larger, more people-friendly location. The brewery settled on a 10,000-square-foot former church in Ashley Landing. “What drew our eye to this place is the fact that we wanted to be taproom-centric and not necessarily distribution-centric,” he says. “We wanted a big space where we could put in a taproom.”
In March 2017, Frothy Beard relocated to the strip mall, serving Holy Water saison, jalapeño-spiced ¡Ándale! Pale Ale, and pizza slices to beer lovers and bored parents alike. “We get a lot of, ‘Hey, my kid is in theater camp around the corner or karate. I’ve got an hour to kill, so I thought I’ll stop in, have a beer and a slice of pizza,’” Biondi says. In the last two years, the strip mall has started filling with a range of businesses, including a bike shop, furniture store, bank, and two new restaurants. “We’ve been a key factor for a bunch of other businesses trying to get in here,” Biondi says.
Breweries also reap the unexpected benefits of operating in strip malls. Beyond favorable rent, there’s often free run of the most prized amenity: parking. “Along with a restaurant, we’re the only business open at night,” says Kevin Greer, the cofounder of Denver’s Baere Brewing. It’s located in a strip mall’s onetime martial-arts dojo alongside a smoke shop and Laundromat—folks will start a wash then wander over for a round—on a busy stretch that’s regularly clogged with rush-hour cars.
“If there’s a ton of traffic, people will come here on their way home,” Greer says. “They’ll drink a beer while waiting for traffic to chill out a little bit.” Maybe they’ll sip Strip Mall Pale Ale, a nod to the brewery’s home. “We’re not pretending we’re not in this ’70s strip mall,” he says. “We’re embracing it and owning it too.”
Putting a brewery in a strip mall is never going to be as uplifting as revitalizing an industrial factory, or reviving a downtown department store. Nonetheless, strip malls are a fixture nationwide, as ingrained in our off-ramp, suburban panorama as fast-food restaurant chains or branches of a bank. It’s easy to drive by a failing strip mall and let it recede into the scenery, replaced by a new one in a quarter-mile. It’s tough to plant a brewery in a struggling strip mall, growing not only your business but the surrounding ones as well.
“There are a few more open bays in our strip mall, and I’d love to see a few more restaurants go in,” says Adams of Southern Swells. “They’d help achieve the same goal, which is, Hey, this could be a full-day destination. You can hang out, grab a coffee, grab a beer, grab a bite to eat and spend a couple hours here. Hopefully the mindset of the strip mall changes from, ‘Oh, I have to go here’ to ‘I want to go there.’”
Illustration by Adam Waito