Hey, Whole Foods! We're Growling for Growlers Over Here.
Dear Park Lane Whole Foods Market:
This is a growler. Notice that it's empty. That's a hint.
It's the Christmas season, a time when all good boys are brimful of dreams for presents. Seeing as I have been good this year -- as far as you know, anyway -- I'm hoping you will grant me one heartfelt holiday wish: Please take a closer look at your alcohol license and get the lead out with starting a growler program. This good little boy wants some beer. Trust us, it'll be good for me and good for your bottom line.
The Wine Bar at the Park Lane Whole Foods Market, the Dallas flagship store, has been a boon to the location. Beginning at about 3 p.m. on weekdays, the bar, with nine taps, including a free-flow Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc, plus several bottles, is packed with regulars and curious shoppers. The beer taps rotate, with two to four coming from Texas microbreweries like Saint Arnold and Rahr & Sons. The drinks are cheap -- about $4.50. Customers can also select one of the store's single beers (and wine bottles) to drink at the bar. The single beers begin at $1.99. Traffic really picks up after 5, when local workers descend upon the supermarket's watering hole. Nevertheless, the Wine Bar and its staff compete for customers with the nearby Gordon Biersch (also in The Shops at Park Lane mixed-use development), a brewery-restaurant. And they're aware of it.
Gordon Biersch offers something the Whole Foods staff thinks it cannot offer: a growler program. This troubles some of the Whole Foods staff, as a growler program is a sure-fire revenue stream. They know this because several Whole Foods stores in the Northeast United States run growler programs. Among those Whole Foods locations is the Bowery Lane Whole Foods in New York City. That store operates the adjacent Bowery Beer Room, where for less than $10, beer drinkers can walk up to the bar and have a growler, a 64-oz brown-glass jug of fun, filled with one of several local craft beers on tap. What's more, the growler doesn't have to be a store-branded vessel. To put it mildly, the Bowery Beer Room makes a mint off that service. The Park Lane store wants a cut, and according to officials with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, there's not much stopping the store from taking that cut right now.
Which sounds like a really good idea to a certain growler fan very, very near to me.
Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant runs a growler program because it holds a brewpub license, says Josh Weaver, general manager of the Gordon Biersch. That allows the store to sell alcohol for on and off-premise consumption as long as it produces no more than 5,000 barrels per location. The Fredericksburg Brewing Co. in the Hill Country town of Fredericksburg offers a growler program, thanks to its brewpub license.
But lo and behold -- that's Christmasy miracle talk -- Whole Foods doesn't need a brewpub license, nor does it have to brew anything. Whip In, a gourmet market-café and beer-geek Mecca in Austin, sells growlers. They can do so because owners Joe and Chandan Topiwala carry a beer and wine retailer's permit. Otherwise known as a BG license, this particular permit allows non-brewpubs to offer growler programs as long as distilled spirits aren't sold. Whip In general manager and son of the owners, Dipak Topiwala, says the tiny number of growler programs in Texas is caused in part by laziness on the part of alcohol sellers. "Its not an uncommon license," he says. "Businesses just aren't willing to vend according to what is possible."
For example, the Park Lane Whole Foods already has the proper BG license. The specialty department staff just doesn't know it. (This was confirmed when I was told by an employee that growler-program brainstorming is slowly beginning.)
Thomas Graham, marketing practices supervisor at the TABC, acknowledges that aside from businesses being unfamiliar with their licenses and/or unwilling to invest the time into understanding the ins and outs of their certificates, TABC's regulations can be somewhat labyrinthine. "It's confusing."
Still, Graham says he would love to see growler programs become popular, but that will take a vanguard of major players, like Whole Foods, to take the lead in starting a trend. "When we see more growlers being sold, we're going to have more people asking questions. I'd like to see that. Part of my job is to field these questions. I enjoy helping people through the process," Graham says. "Nevertheless, no one needs our approval. It's permitted by the license."
Whole Foods Market's licensing team leader in the global support office, Ryan Bissett, knows this at least, and he made it clear that the Park Lane Whole Foods can sell growlers right now. "We don't expect our store employees to know the ins and outs of TABC licensing. That's something we take care of in our office in conjunction with our legal team," he said. "That store is very interested in pursuing a growler program. We're discussing it."
Well, not to be a pest, but I say enough with the chitchat. This good -- well, reasonably good -- boy is a regular at Whole Foods' Wine Bar, and I have seven empty growlers -- one of which is from the Bowery Beer Room! -- ready and waiting to be filled. They'll look so precious under my plastic white tree (I'm allergic).