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How the grocery store became the neighborhood pub

Nontraditional locations with beer sales—from barbershops to grocery stores to movie theaters—are changing where and when we drink.
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Whole Foods Market's Bar Rincon in Oxnard, California

Whole Foods Market’s Bar Rincon in Oxnard, California

Years ago, if you wanted to drink a beer at the movie theater, you had to sneak it in yourself. Don’t pretend you never saw (or did) it: the slow attempt to open the can quietly during a loud portion of the previews, the care taken not to knock it over, the furtive glances at fellow moviegoers.

No more. Movie theaters have not only added alcoholic beverages in recent years, but have consciously stepped up the quality of their offerings. The same goes for salons, barbershops, grocery stores, even bookstores. It’s part of a larger trend toward non-traditional locations that sell beer and alcohol, an increasing pervasiveness of beer at spots other than bars and restaurants.

Nielsen data show that beer sales at theaters are up more than 61 percent between 2012 and 2016; they’ve grown more than 16 percent at theme parks during the same time and 132 percent at “other entertainment” venues.

Those numbers quantify what most beer drinkers already know: Drinking a beer would enhance the experience of … well, almost anything.

“Who’d have thought that having a beer and watching a movie would be popular?” jokes Frank Lewis, director of alcohol operations for AMC Theaters. “In the theaters where we don’t serve alcohol, when we clean the theaters, we’re constantly finding beers that people smuggled in. [Alcohol sales] have become a very robust part of our business.”

How robust? Because of the number of AMC theaters that serve alcohol nationwide—257 as of June 2017—the chain is often in the top ten national on-premise accounts for the craft beers that they carry.

Barnes And Noble Kitchen in Eastchester, New York

Barnes And Noble Kitchen in Eastchester, New York

It’s not just ubiquitous light lagers being offered at theaters or salons or bookstores, either. At Barnes & Noble’s three concept stores that feature expanded restaurants with alcohol service, called Barnes & Noble Kitchen, thirsty bookworms could order an Oak Park Citra IPA in Folsom, California, or a Brau Brothers’ Moo Joos oatmeal milk stout in Edina, Minnesota. And Lewis says AMC Theaters’ MacGuffins Pubs continue to evaluate their tap and packaged line-ups to focus more on local and high-end beers.

“With the craft beer and cider movement, local beers are very important and very popular with our guests. Because they’re only getting one, maybe two beers, customers want them to count,” he says. “Because it’s more experiential, people tend to splurge. It’s girls’ night, or it’s a date night, a birthday, so we’ve definitely leaned a lot into craft beer, into local beer and cool imports.”

And then there’s Whole Foods, a chain that for many people typifies the “grocerant,” or grocery store/restaurant. Whole Foods’ first store with bar-style alcohol sales opened in 2009; now more than 200 of the chain’s stores sell full pours of beer for in-store enjoyment. Two Whole Foods locations, in Houston and San Jose, even have breweries inside them.

“We want to be the sort of community watering spot,” says Devon Broglie, Whole Foods’ global beverage buyer. “Having the opportunity for draft beer in our stores, it became the perfect symbiosis where suddenly we’re the off-premise place to get your everyday package of craft beer and then we’re also getting a few kegs of some of that brewery’s super special stuff.”

Selling alcohol not only keeps shoppers or visitors in a store, theater or entertainment venue longer, but could lead to lowered purchasing inhibitions. Who wouldn’t spend more on groceries after having a beer?

Nontraditional venues for beer sales also point to a more relaxed American attitude toward alcohol consumption, one that’s light years away from the Prohibition-era confinement of drinking to back rooms and speakeasies. Americans are slowly becoming more comfortable seeing friends grab a beer at a theme park, or sipping wine with friends while getting a pedicure. That’s all good news for beer fans, and the breweries trying to reach them, no matter where they are.

The beer menu at Whole Foods Market's Draft Shack in Austin, Texas

The beer menu at Whole Foods Market’s Draft Shack in Austin, Texas

The next round

Entertainment and retail spots increasingly add beer to the mix.

TopGolf
These high-tech golf-slash-entertainment centers have expanded to 15 states (with more to come) since the company’s founding in 2000; locations sell beer, wine and liquor and will deliver drinks directly to your “hitting bays.”

Wegmans
The Pub by Wegmans is a bar-within-a-grocery store, offering food (everything from shrimp po boys to buffalo wings) plus beer, wine and cocktails in select locations in Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York.

V’s Barbershop
Nine locations of this barbershop franchise, founded in 1999, sell beer, including all California locations plus shops in Bellingham, Washington, Phoenix’s CityScape and Gilbert, Arizona.

Barnes & Noble
The brick-and-mortar bookstore chain recently opened three concept stores with full restaurants in Folsom, California, Eastchester, New York, and Edina, Minnesota. Each store serves local beer and offers a full food menu. Two additional concept stores are slated to open soon in Texas and Virginia.

Whole Foods
More than 200 Whole Foods grocery stores also have bars offering full pours of beer and wine, and two (in San Jose, California, and Houston) even operate breweries within the stores. The largest draft beer selection can be found at a Whole Foods’ Austin location, which boasts 55 taps.

AMC
Depending on the location, AMC offers a full-service dine-in experience, featuring a largemenu of appetizers, entrees and desserts; other locations offer a deliver-to-seat model, where guests can order and the food is delivered directly to their seats. Currently, AMC offers at least one of these in 247 locations nationwide, with a goal of pushing the concepts into Maryland, Oklahoma and Washington in the future. MacGuffins, AMC’s option for adult beverages, is the spot to get a beer, glass of wine or cocktail.

Birds Barbershop
On July 1, all locations of this Texas barbershop began offering complimentary beer from Austin-based Independence Brewing; Birds operates nine barbershops across Austin and Houston.

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