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The Ubiquity of a Pint: Are Grocery Stores the New Beer Bars?

February 05, 2018

By Tobias Carroll, February 05, 2018

In New York City, businesses open in neighborhoods across all five boroughs with an unexpected speed and energy—the 60 minute IPA of urban retail, to use a beer-centric, if obvious, metaphor. Odds are good that there’s a business somewhere in the city that sells your current, obscure food, drink or item of clothing obsession of choice…a retailer for every person.

There’s a Whole Foods on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg that tucks most of its retail admirable selection of craft beers. It’s called N4 Tap Room and it pulls double duty. You can go there for a beer and a meal and kill some time, or you can bring in a growler and get it filled with one of the beers on tap.

When I went down there for a drink, there was a small group of people engaged in a pub quiz. The bartender was friendly, the array of mostly local beers were quite good and the decor never felt overwhelming. I had Shmaltz’s 518 Pick Me Up, a tasty brown ale. It was also more than a little weird, because I could never quite forget that I was drinking alone in a bar in the basement of a grocery store.

Whole Foods

Solo grocery shopping in New York—particularly at a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s—can bring on the sensory overload like nothing else. In that case, why not get slightly buzzed before foraging out for almond butter, humanely-raised salmon, or organic chia seeds? Still, it’s strange.

Growing up in central New Jersey in the 80s and 90s, I’d sometimes see small bars situated in the back of local liquor stores. It’s a surreal combination, but it’s not completely irrational. Clearly, if you’re shopping at a liquor store, you like liquor, so why not blend two businesses that traffic in it?

But the grafting of a business model from a suburban strip mall to a high-end grocery store remains strange. There’s something specific about it, something tailored, especially when you throw the algorithmic implications of Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods into the mix.

Still, it’s not like this isn’t a logical next step for some aspects of selling beer in 2017. The ongoing emphasis on craft beer means that growlers have taken on an increased prominence in beer retailing. Nowadays, cans or bottles aren’t necessary to sell to beer lovers–a maneuver that’s good for beer as a whole.

But, that also means, an increasing number of businesses that sell beer occupy a space somewhere between beer store and bar. The same taps that can fill up a growler can just as easily do so for a pint glass. And setting up a couple of chairs and tables for people to gather isn’t hard.

Go ahead and apply this logic to N4 Tap Room. Plenty of organic food spots in New York also have beers on tap and offer growler refills. N4 takes this to the proverbial next level, but there’s a key difference. Most beer shops are standalone affairs. They’re part of a neighborhood’s retail ecosystem. The idea of a bar embedded inside of a grocery store places it within a self-contained retail ecosystem.

That ends up feeling like part of an even larger trend. Over the summer, noted chef David Chang argued that food halls, not standalone spaces, were the future of many independently owned restaurants. And while bars or restaurants within a retailer aren’t that strange—the Macy’s at Herald Square has its own bar in the basement, and a number of Barnes & Noble stores are following the lead of indie bookstores like Hudson’s Spotty Dog Books & Ale and adding alcohol sales to their menu.

Whole Foods

That sense of drinking at a bar in a grocery store’s basement sparks a sense of isolation—a sense of something self-contained, which isn’t always a good thing. A recent New York article on the growth of high-rise residences in Long Island City alluded to one developer “attempt[ing] to create his own curated version of the street life he likes back in Boerum Hill, where he lives.” Why go out to shops and gyms and bars at all, the idea goes, when you can experience a version of all of them without leaving your building?

This isn't simply a New York phenomenon, though it’s certainly on the rise in the five boroughs. The same is true for cities where development has begun in earnest. For example, an article in the Charlotte Observer described two luxury apartment buildings with a slew of amenities, including private bars. A recent roundup of high-end residences in Baltimore also included a couple of buildings whose structures encompassed bars for the residents.

What comes off as most worrisome about the idea of a bar that’s somehow restrictive—whether contained within another retailer or reserved for the residents of a private building—is the way it misses one of the things that makes a bar a bar. In her 2013 memoir Drinking With Men, Rosie Schaap writes about what bars offer people. “A bar gives you more than drink alone,” she writes. “It gives you the presence of others; it gives you relief from isolation. When you are a regular, it gives you community, too.”

As of earlier this fall, one of the most talked-about cocktail bars in New York was one located in a supply closet, designed to hold all of three people, including the bartender. This is not a lost Stefon bit from SNL. This also is not an Onion headline. This is a bar where your tab will cost around $100. Whether it’s an outlier or the future depends on many things, but it’s certainly closer to the latter than it once was.

Reducing a bar to its most basic components and using it as an incentive for something else defeats one of the essential purposes of a bar. It’s a contradiction that’s impossible to shake. And it might bring us one step closer to a bar designed for one, with everything you think you want on tap, and none of the things you really need.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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