EXCLUSIVE: Entertainment, Enjoyable Experiences on Tap at In-Store Bars

Mariano’s, Hy-Vee and Gelson’s are examples of grocers drawing customers for drinks and events
Lynn Petrak
Senior Editor
a woman smiling for the camera
Gelson's wine bar
Gelson's wine and tapas bars are so popular that the SoCal grocer is adding more of them to updated stores.

All grocers want to keep their customers satisfied, but many food retailers are taking an extra step to make them happy. In many parts of the country, grocers are hosting happy hours and other special events and offerings at their in-store bars and pubs.

In-store bars are part of the growing emphasis on creating a unique shopping experience. Although the era of social distancing shut down some of those adult beverage areas for a bit, most are back in full force to serve up drinks and a good time for customers over the age of 21.

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Mariano’s, a Midwest banner of The Kroger Co., has elevated the fun at its bars in Chicago with “Live at Mariano’s” performances. “Mariano’s has always been known for its live music program since we opened in 2010. Live at Mariano’s is an evolution of this experience we offer our customers. On Fridays from 4 to 8 (p.m.) at stores with bars, we feature DJs and bands from all over the Chicagoland area. The genres we celebrate are jazz, blues, pop and soul as well as original music from award winning and Grammy-nominated artists,” explained Amanda Puck, director of strategic brand development for Mariano’s, adding that the events have garnered good buzz in the area. “It has grown to a few stores without bars and we have seen a great response on social media, especially TikTok.”

According to Puck, the events draw shoppers already in the store as well as those who come to the location for that particular happening. “There is a combination for sure, Live at Mariano’s is a destination and customers can always shop on their way out as well,” she said.  

Mariano's wine bar
The "Live at Mariano's" music performances in Chicago stores feature local entertainers -- and drinks.

Other grocers with in-store bars attest to the ways that such programs appeal to those in the store and those who make plans to visit the site for some entertainment and fun. “This area of our store certainly attracts both types of customers,” reported Tina Potthoff, SVP, communications at Iowa-headquartered Hy-Vee, Inc.

Likewise, Sean F. Sáenz, VP of fresh foods at Gelson’s in California, said that the independent chain’s wine and tapas bars help widen the customer base. “We have a core following of shoppers who enjoy the bar in addition to shopping, and we also have locals that know Gelson’s is part of the communities that we serve and stop by just to visit our bar,” he remarked.

In general, these and other retailers with their own pubs, like Whole Foods Market and Lowes Foods, have found that the ventures can be rewarding. Hy-Vee, which first introduced a pub more than a decade ago at a store in Urbandale, Iowa, has done well with those concepts, as it has with other foodservice-at-retail programs. “We continue to incorporate the bar setting into our sit-down eating areas in many of our new stores, as they have become a place for people to gather, watch football games, and just collectively enjoy food from our dining options,” Potthoff added.

Gelson's has also been successful with its over-21 spaces since launching its first wine bar in a Long Beach location in 2013. Today, Gelson's operates 15 wine and tapas bars in Southern California and is planning to add two more soon. “Our last two grand openings at Rancho Mission Viejo and Manhattan Beach both opened with wine and tapas bars. Because of their popularity, we have grown the size of them where space has allowed and added sushi bars to some locations. We recently had to go back and expand the original Long Beach location because it is so popular, and even have an outdoor patio there available for catered events,” shared Sáenz.

Hy Vee bar
The in-store pub is a highlight of many new Hy-Vee stores.

Retailers with in-store bars can also use those areas to demonstrate their commitment to locally-sourced products, especially as more craft beers, spirits, and wines are produced by small businesses. “We really work to make sure we are carrying both local and national products that customers in that particular community will enjoy. Also, in many of our areas, we will personalize the area to that town by incorporating various paintings and memorabilia on the walls from the area to create a nostalgic, personalized look,” noted Potthoff.

Puck agreed that localization is another way to distinguish these kinds of programs. “We offer great wines at great prices, as well as local beers on draft from breweries like Goose Island, Revolution, Crystal Lake Brewing, Three Floyds and more. The focus is on local to show our support for the hometown brands.” she said, adding, “We support local artisans and vendors from across Chicagoland by searching for the latest products that are clearly labeled as locally made. We also provide an opportunity for vendors to connect with customers and promote their products through in-store tastings as well as appearances at Mariano’s locations.”

Ultimately, in-store bars are another facet of the business that make grocery stores a hub of the community. “This is why it’s important for us to provide space within our stores wherever possible for people in the neighborhoods we serve to relax, enjoy, spend time with friends and enjoy our great Gelson’s food, wine, bar and unparalleled service,” said Sáenz.

On that note, in today’s ever-competitive marketplace, grocers can combine service with entertainment in their brick-and-mortar locations for even happier customers. “Shoppers also come in for the convenience of what we call ‘Sip and Shop’ we shop for their list of groceries while they enjoy themselves at the wine bar,” Sáenz added.  

Encino, Calif.-based Gelson’s  operates 27 stores in Southern California. Employee-owned Hy-Vee of West Des Moines, Iowa, operates more than 285 retail stores across eight Midwestern states and is No. 30 on The PG 100, Progressive Grocer’s 2022 list of the top food and consumables retailers in North America. Cincinnati-based Kroger , parent company of Mariano’s, is No. 4 on The PG 100.

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