By Chris McClellan
I need some eggs, laundry detergent, Bananas...
And a beer. I'm pretty thirsty today, so maybe two beers. Let's see how I'm feeling when my cart is full.
It may seem a little odd for The Brew Enthusiast, which generally focuses on breweries, to do a feature on an east coast supermarket chain, but I was absolutely fascinated with the success that Wegmans has found with the Pubs...a seven year-old concept that has spread to 12 of their stores throughout Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia, showing no signs of slowing down and capitalizing on a core competency they're already famous for...meticulously prepared hot food and a customer-centric atmosphere. Pub culture is, sadly, fading away in many parts of this country and around the world, and while I still hold a very special place in my heart for my neighborhood dive , this could be the start of an entirely new way of thinking about grabbing a pint at your local...grocery store?
Not for nothing, and certainly not for lack of effort, Wegmans has forged something of a cult reputation in the towns and cities in which they do business (they've been around since 1916...so they've had some time to build it). I can speak quite personally about this subject since I first stepped foot into the Wegmans in Fairfax, VA many years ago near my previous home in Washington, D.C. I was almost instantly sold. The people were incredibly nice and smiley, and the food was delicious. Think Whole Foods without the implied (real or not) pretention of having to tell people that you consistently shop at Whole Foods. What more could I want from a quick stop into the grocer?
Apparently quite a bit more. I spoke with Scott Bova, Director of Restaurant Services at Wegmans Pubs, and Antonio Arias, Wegmans' beer merchant, on the concept and success they've found in recent years, and more importantly, how this reflects Wegmans' dedication to great beer and the local communities they're helping to support. Both were open and honest in their conversation with me, and offered an inspiring view on the growth of the Pubs.
So it's great, approachable food at the pubs (the burgers are really good...I got one), inspired by the culinary backbone of the company. I love it.
Wegmans initial foray into restaurants began with Tastings – a fine-dining concept located in Pittsford, N.Y. adjacent to the chain’s flagship store. That evolved into Next Door, a self-standing full-service restaurant also in Pittsford. The Pub concept was launched in 2010 in Collegeville, PA with a 70 seat capacity.
They're also legendary for the absolutely bursting beer section of their stores, which has only grown in recent years, featuring great beer from around the country and around the world. It's a humbling experience to peruse their shelves, and offers consumers the opportunity to actually have a conversation with the beer team at each store. As readers of this site are well aware by now, I'm a huuuuuge advocate of building a conversation around the beer business to help add some transparency to what's happening out there, and this gives the beer novice a fighting chance at participating in that conversation.
So this is all well and good, but it begs the question: Is this an evolution of pub culture in 2017, or simply an off-shoot that's built to leverage a captive audience? Can this model sustain itself across a more urban demographic, or does it play out it in the small town geography more effectively?
That's a broad question, but it deserves a little analysis. Public houses, bars, local dives...places to drink alcohol with friends and neighbors. These have been the cornerstone of communities around the world for a millennia, and I'm really sad to see a lot of pubs in my neighborhood fade away, or sell off to a trendy restaurant chain because customers aren't as regular as they used to be. We're drinking more beer at breweries (this is called "own-premise" consumption, and it's already 10% of the total on-premise drinking here in U.S), we're drinking more beer at home, and because of that, we're not drinking beer at bars like we used to (this is a globally applicable sentiment). A common lament, and not something I'll harp on, but it outlines the realities of our dynamic beer industry in the modern age.
Wegmans seems to be fighting back in their own way. Certainly not an independently owned bar, but a welcome addition to the neighborhood when your town's best bet for a local watering hole has 235 other locations across the country serving nothing but ice cold domestic beer and touting a bar staff that barely makes eye contact with you, let alone encourages you to actually build a rapport with them. It's an evolution on their business model and a sincere attempt at making their customers feel like they can swing through for a drink. I'll be honest...the idea of drinking beer at a pub inside a grocery store is still a little weird to me, but the vibes are great, and the idea of making a trip to the grocery store bearable (dare I say...enjoyable?) with a great beer is incredibly appealing.
I heard a rumor of a Wegmans store opening in Brooklyn in the next few years, and this would the ultimate crucible for their Pub...will the locals embrace it, or dismiss it as corporate profiteering? If this does happen, I'll be there on opening day, hipster radar on maximum.
Wegmans doesn't have this market cornered. I picked on Whole Foods earlier, but as an adopted New Yorker, I've been know to shop there on occasion. They've opened a similar concept at a lot of their stores across the country in recent years to great success, and the tap list at my local Whole Foods at Columbus Circle is admittedly righteous, with a great happy hour to boot.
What this does do, however, is make the beer world a better place, and I'm happy to say that it's happening at such a legendarily food-focused family business. All is not lost, and it's certainly not as bad as they'd like you to think it is when you've got a few friends around you, a freshly prepared meal in front of you, and a well-curated selection of beers to choose from. Let's see if we can bring back the art of conversation and remember a time when the local pub stood for all that was right and proper in the world. It's a glorious vision, I grant you, but it's attainable as well.
And remember to buy blueberries if they're on sale. It's blueberry season, after all.