Point of Brew: Grocery shopping at the pub

By March 29, 2011

I’m not sure I need any more access to alcohol than I already have. Alcohol is good for me, and for most other people, when applied in small doses on a regular basis and as an ordinary part of ordinary life; part, you might say, of a civilized diet and as a useful lubricant of the social scene.

I have ample opportunity for access to alcohol at home and in pubs, taverns and bars; there may be some slight inconvenience, now and again, with finding just the right place to enjoy a drink alone or with friends, whether in quiet contemplation, thoughtful conversation, communal sports-watching or a rowdy party.

That is part of the enjoyment of a drinker’s habit; the process of finding the ideal site for drinking, the hunt for habitat, is part of the fun.

But opportunities for alcohol are about to be multiplied.

I read in USA Today that, in a new venture, “Whole Foods invites customers to have a drink”; this is a direct quote of the headline in the Money section of the newspaper of Monday. A grocery chain in the pub business for goodness’ sake; will nonsense never end? I guess not — Starbucks is experimenting with beer and wine service at some coffee bars in Seattle.

The CEO of Whole Foods takes the view that “coming out of the recession, people are looking for affordable luxuries and a more intimate experience.” I’m not sure that a Whole Foods grocery store, among the jams, jellies and cornflakes, meats and cheeses, and pushing a wire basket, is a place I would look for an intimate experience nor, come to think of it, an affordable luxury. In fact, it’s a bit of a stretch for me to think of a bottle of beer in those terms.

Other experts say that serving beer and wine on the premises of a grocery store “can lift the entire experience of shopping.” I can understand why that would be a good thing because I cannot think of any activity more than grocery shopping that needs an entire lift.

Curiously, as I write this, I am beginning to warm to the idea of pubs in grocery stores because I can see how it might fit my lifestyle (this is something I have only when in Whole Foods, by the way).

My entire sorry experience of grocery shopping is as a motive force for the cart, that is, to follow faithfully she who shops. Occasionally, I am sent on specific errands around the store to find this or that exact thing. I am never dispatched to fetch anything that requires judgment of kind, brand, quality, price, amount or packaging because I will inevitability get it wrong, and must return it whence it came.

One giant advantage of a pub in a grocery store is that I could be sent on an errand and never return or, better yet, I could be deposited at the bar upon entry to be picked up again upon exit.

On this basis, I would recommend that Macy’s and Ann Taylor and Nordstrom also put in convenient pubs — one on each floor — so that poor fellow who can be seen “helping” his spouse sort through endless racks of clothing, as if he has anything to contribute to that enterprise, can be firmly dispatched to the pub. As it is now, the best one can do is find a chair and nod off.

Another expert lauds the idea of bars in grocery stores. “This is about creating community in the store,” he says. I have no idea what this means. He might have been misquoted and actually said, “This is about to create calamity in the store” because another expert commentator gives a nod to the risks involved and warns that it would not be a good thing “if it takes on a life of its own” and gets rowdy.

Now if it takes on a life of its own and gets rowdy, or at least convivial, that is what I understand as community.

What every grocery store needs, I guess, is a group of guys, not needed for shopping even as motive force for the cart, nor anything else for that matter, deposited at the corner bar hoisting a few beers watching football together. That’s community.

Veteran supermarket consultant (I guess there are such people) Howard Solganik says this venture of the Whole Foods grocery chain “in one step achieves everything Whole Foods is trying to do.” This is the concluding sentence of a paragraph that recognizes that bars in grocery stores would be a relatively low-cost way to make a lot of money. I wonder if it works as well the other way around?

Now this I understand. Making money is what stores are supposed to do and they do that best by serving the needs of their customers. I suppose, therefore, that Whole Foods customers are looking for lifting and intimate experiences in a newly created community, though I doubt it.

I think the idea of pubs in grocery stores would work just as well if they were to provide a place for shoppers to sit down and relax for a few minutes and enjoy a reinvigorating libation to counter the enervating activity of — well — grocery shopping.

— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Michael Lewis

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