I've never seen such pure delight as the look on the faces of women entering the Silver Lake Gelson's and seeing friends drinking at the new bar just to the left of the store's entrance. It's 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, and my friend Madeleine and I have perched ourselves at the very corner of the bar, right next to the sliding doors, so that it's impossible for entering customers not to see us. The bar, called Noshing & Imbibing (spelled out in block letters overhead the same way "Meat & Seafood" might show up in another part of the store), is part of Gelson's recent and ongoing overhaul, a renovation that feels very much like an attempt to stay relevant in a neighborhood that has just become the recipient of the first Whole Foods 365. But Noshing & Imbibing in particular is part of a larger, somewhat baffling trend: bars in supermarkets.
It began with Whole Foods, which now offers different bars in different stores: beer bars, wine bars. Gelson's opened its first bar in its Long Beach shop, and found it was such a hit plans were made to add bars to more stores. Even Ralphs, which generally sits on the lower end of the fanciness scale when it comes to supermarkets, now has bars in its downtown and Westwood stores.
At the new Silver Lake Gelson's bar, it's initially hard to see the appeal. Unlike some Whole Foods bars, which aim to create a more bar-like vibe with lower lighting and an out-of-the-way location, Noshing & Imbibing sits under the harsh glare of fluorescents, and is positioned in such a way that it would be hard to forget where you're sitting, in the middle of a grocery store. But we quickly realized there were many benefits to drinking here, both social and practical.
When first considering the utility of a bar at Gelson's, I thought about the store's current place in my social life and the social life of the people I know. It is not insignificant. Because my kid goes to school in the neighborhood, and because I'm pretty terrible at maintaining a normal social life with other parents, much of my interaction takes place when I run into people in the aisles of Gelson's. Would a bar provide higher quality socialization with those people? Might it be possible to say, "Hey, wanna grab a beer?" and have a more memorable conversation than one you might have while standing awkwardly by the overpriced tropical fruits? So I asked one of my friends who I usually bump into at Gelson's to meet me at the bar. And before you knew it, we had a mom party on our hands.
Before we get to the mom party, let me tell you some of the practical benefits of drinking at Gelson's. The drinks are cheap. One of the things I wondered was whether there would be any wine worth drinking, seeing as the wine selection on the Gelson's shelves is pretty underwhelming. The offerings at the bar aren't any more inspiring, but they did offer Minerval rose (the Brangelina wine...who will get the wine in the divorce!?!?) for $9 a glass, which is fairly cheap for a bottle that retails at close to $30. Wine starts at $6 a glass. Beer is affordable too. The bartenders don't accept tips, which makes the fact that they're obviously supermarket employees and not professional bartenders endearing rather than annoying. (I also have hopes that the on-the-job training will open up career prospects for folks who might want to make the leap to a more lucrative profession in a setting where tips are expected.) You can buy snacks, which are also pretty cheap. We got a cheese plate, which wasn't exactly impressive, but it cost $5.99 so it's hard to complain.
Almost as soon as we sat down, the young lady behind the bar informed us that there were tequila samples by the manager's desk. Another friendly employee showed up and gave us samples of spicy tuna poke. A guy named Otto came by and told us about the "you sip, we shop" program, in which you write down the groceries you want and a Gelson's employee will do the shopping for you while you drink at the bar. The service is free for now as they introduce it to customers, but it will eventually cost $3.
All of these perks are lovely, but by far the best thing was the reaction of women we knew who saw us as they entered the store. Everyone claimed to be obsessed with the bar at Gelson's. Many of them came around the plexiglass and joined us for a drink. This was an especially easy sell when we pointed out that they'll sell you a small glass of beer for $3. Others stood and chatted while holding groceries on their way out. A shriek of joy rose up when a beloved second grade teacher from the elementary school came through the doors. I shared conversation and clinked glasses with women at whom I normally might have nodded clumsily as we passed in the pasta aisle.
The TV show "Cheers" was invoked by almost everyone, and I found this particularly telling. Bars where you feel you belong are harder to come by once you're a parent. A night out with other moms is something that must be planned ahead, babysitters must be arranged; it's anything but casual. But running into someone at the Gelson's, sitting for 20 minutes and having a tiny beer and a catch up? That's doable, and natural, and feels like it offers the kind of community that's hard to find in modern adult life. At 4 p.m. on a Friday it would be hard to say to your kids, "see ya, I'm off to the bar!" But you can run to the supermarket.
I'll cheers to that.