Saturday, February 27, 2010

Neo-Rust Belt Chic: Whole Foods Pubs

I'm passionate about beer and drinking culture. The US history of such things is rich enough to justify a college-level geography course dedicated to the subject. And when it comes to the queer and odd, Pennsylvania is tops. Perhaps Lew Bryson might write a book about it.

For connoisseurs, PA booze laws are a scourge. But the craft brew revolution has quietly morphed the legal landscape. You can find evidence of this transformation in every state. There will be no remake of "Smokey and the Bandit" because you can get Coors east of Texarkana. Still, beer geeks feel lost in the Dark Ages in Pennsylvania.

Working around the restrictions has resulted in a few quirks. I also think it generates considerable parochial charm. In my continuing quest to recast Rust Belt liabilities as core assets, behold the grocery store pub:

With its soft lighting and easy chairs, the Whole Foods establishment looks more like a coffee lounge than Wegmans’ 63-seat pub, where the bar top is Cambria natural quartz stone, surrounded by solid cherry and cherry veneers. Two flat-screen TVs offer patrons something to watch when they’re not gazing into each other’s eyes.

The food-service component has enabled Wegmans and Whole Foods to buy restaurant liquor licenses that allow them not only to dispense beer, wine, and — in Wegmans’ case — spirits for consumption on the premises, but also to sell six-packs of beer for carryout.

Two per customer is the rule, said Nick Hays, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Otherwise, state law generally limits six-pack sales to bars.

Cases (the equivalent of four six-packs) are the minimum at distributors. Sen. John C. Rafferty Jr. is pushing for an overhaul of the state’s beer laws to allow distributors, supermarkets, convenience stores, and bars and taverns to sell anything from a six-pack up to a case of beer.

There are no plans for pubs at the Wegmans stores in Cherry Hill and Mount Laurel — the law in New Jersey does not permit supermarkets to own restaurant liquor licenses.

In this era of globalization, the matter of state borders would seem to be a moot point. Concerning alcohol, there's a surprising variety of contexts for the dedicated tourist. Even the most liberal states have legacies on the books that result in a unique drinking geography. But a supermarket pub?

In Greater Pittsburgh, there are a few well-known prototypes of the phenomenon. Most famous is D's Six Pax & Dogz in (on?) Regent Square. There's some interesting history there with nearby (across the street?) dry Wilkinsburg. This is one of the few places in all of SW PA to purchase a six pack of hard-to-find gourmet microbrews. Thus, it acts as a magnet for this niche demographic.

Perhaps supermarket pubs will undermine D's business, but I'd bet the established waterholes will continue to pack in the beer hunters. Social drinking and food shopping under one roof is, as far as I know, a cultural frontier. Ironically, the offering is progressive and could drag open moderate drinking back into the mainstream.

I can't imagine such a mash-up happening in any other state. Cheers, Pennsylvania!


Stephen Gross said...

You should check out the Whole Foods in Lincoln Square (Chicago). They've got a whole bar area, with a HUGE selection on tap. Nice seating area, too, and lots of TVs for sports. Quite a scene!

Jim Russell said...

Now that you mention it, I vaguely recollect the word about the Chicago Whole Foods pub bouncing around beer geek circles.

I'm not sure how that affects the Neo-Rust Belt Chic prospects, but something for me to research.

Stephen Gross said...

Not quite sure about all the urban policy ramifications of craft beer, but: At least in Cleveland, like all truly great city assets (parks, restaurants, Lake Erie) it goes unrecognized by the official media shills for the city. For a decade now, the official tourism proponents of Cleveland have touted the Rock Hall, the Orchestra, and a renaissance of employment that never existed. At the same time, Great Lakes Brewing makes some of the best "craft" beer in the country, and yet is never mentioned.

What's the lesson? I'm not sure. Drink Eliot Ness anyway :)