Grocery Stores Open Tap On In-Store Bars

Drink while you shop or pull up a stool, these bars-within-grocery-stores are steering a welcome trend.

Bartender Carolyn Tang serves a beer sample with a smile at Broadway on the Rocks in Albertson’s, Boise.

Bartender Carolyn Tang serves a beer sample with a smile at Broadway on the Rocks in Albertson’s, Boise.

All photos by Phil Galewitz.

Will McCullough came home from work a recent weeknight and didn’t see anything to his liking in his fridge. So he headed out to nearby Whole Foods Market. But when he walked in to the new store near Washington D.C.’s booming Navy Yard neighborhood, he skipped the seafood counter and the giant aisle of prepared foods. Instead, he went straight to the bar.

The SoCap Wine Bar inside the Whole Foods has 16 wines and a dozen craft beers on tap. It sells beers in small, medium and large pours and wine in 1 oz., 3 oz and 6 oz. amounts via a self-service  machine. “This place is amazing and has everything you want without going to a dimly lit bar,” said McCullough, 33, a product manager for a market data firm, as he sipped a pint of DC Brau pale ale. The $5 pint for most craft beers makes it one of the best deals in town, particularly surprising at a grocery store not known for low prices. Customers can sit at the bar or at a handful of tables—or take their drinks with them around the store while they shop. With folks inspecting the produce and vegetables with a glass of chardonnay in hand, the scene in the Whole Foods made it almost like an evening reception.

Whole Foods is one of several national grocery store chains that are adding bars and brewpubs where shoppers can drink beer, wine and spirits right inside their stores. Albertsons, Kroger and Wegmans are among other companies testing the bar-within-a grocery store concept at select locations. Whether the concept leads customers to spend more money on groceries—partly because they are under the influence of alcohol—isn’t yet known. But there’s no doubt the bars are driving more traffic to the stores.

When Albertson’s was building a new flagship store in Boise, Idaho which opened in July, adding a full brewpub on its 2nd floor with large windows to look out on the nearby mountains was a main priority, said Brian Conley, the store director. The spacious bar, with indoor and outdoor seating and fireplace, is called Broadway on the Rocks. It features a full bar of beers on tap and in bottle, wine and distilled spirits and cocktails. “We want to be a destination where you can do everything—shop, have lunch, breakfast or dinner… we just don’t have a bed to sleep in,” he said.

Bartender Sarina Roye at SoCap Wine Bar inside Whole Foods in DC.

Bartender Sarina Roye at SoCap Wine Bar inside Whole Foods in DC.

The Boise store is Albertsons’ first in-store bar. There are 36 beer taps, half dispensing Idaho-produced beer. Wine is available by the glass, along with mixed alcoholic drinks. With seating for 200 people, customers can also order food tableside. The space includes several TV monitors and roll-up doors that let the air in when it’s nice outside, along with an outside deck that looks north toward Albertsons Stadium on the Boise State University campus.

The Albertson’s bar/restaurant quickly became a hit for students and fans looking for a place to watch football or hang out before or after a game, said Albertson’s spokeswoman Kathy Holland.  She said the bar and restaurant was so the store could offer more full service amenities to customers beyond just offering sushi and Starbucks.  “The response from the community has been fabulous and to see the looks on people’s faces when they walk into the bar is amazing,” she said.

Broadway on the Rocks has its own liquor license that enables it to sell beer, wine and spirits, she said. The company has plans to open a similar brewpub in Meridian, Idaho next spring.

Holland said the bar was not a response to a nearby Whole Foods that had already opened a small pub on the second floor of a nearby downtown Boise store. “This store was in the works for many years,” she said.

The Alberton’s store offers live music on weekends and vendors can offer samples of their wines or beers in the bar. “A grocery store is not just about picking up the milk and eggs,” she said. “We are redefining the experience and making grocery shopping fun not just a normal daily task,” she said. The bar includes beers from several Idaho breweries, including Payette Brewing, Mother Earth Brewing and Woodland Empire.  The bar, which also offers a full menu of sandwiches, burgers, pizza and soups, gives customer the opportunity to try some beer or wine before purchasing full bottles in the aisle below them. “It’s become a date night spot,” Holland said. An inexpensive one with most beers sold for $5 and many glass of wine under $10.

If serving beers weren’t enough, Whole Foods in Houston has its own in store breweries in Houston and San Jose Calif. The stores sell their house-made brews in addition to having some guest taps. Each bar or brewpub within the store is designed to feature foods and drinks reflecting its own market.

Kroger has added beer stations to selected stores including in Cincinnati, Lexington, Ky., Memphis, and Richmond, Va. It also has added them to stores in the Pacific Northwest at its Fred Meyer and QFC chains. The stores allow customers to buy small pours or pints as well as fill 32-ounce and 64-ounce growlers.

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The in-store pubs are in many ways still secret drinking spots as many locations provide little signage to point customers. That’s the case at Whole Foods location along busy H Street Northeast corridor. The bar is in the back of the store up a staircase near the meat department. 

But at the South Capitol Hill Whole Foods that opened in November, the bar is in the corner of the store with windows looking out into the street. Bartender Sarina Roye said the SoCap Wine Bar is a place for many young local residents to hang out—even if they’re not planning to shop. “Some folks have a drink before doing their shopping while others just come in to meet friends,” she said.  Customers can bring in salads and food from the store’s prepared food aisle or at the bar they can order fries, wings or a cheesesteak.

Robert Butora, 32, a Senate aide, said the well-lit bar makes the shopping experience more fun. “It feels like an adult version of a college dining hall,” he said while finishing a beer with his girlfriend. “Having a place with good beers on tap and a mix of healthy and not so healthy foods makes this a great place to unwind.”

His only suggestion to make it better: “They need cup holders on the shopping carts.”