The bar goes retail

That’s one Gin Rickey coming right up, and I’ll wrap up the spotted dick to go.” For some forward-thinking operators, selling specialty groceries is a unique way to boost the bar tab and make themselves a retail destination as well. But it takes more than just tacking up a few shelves of merchandise to grab those take-away retail sales. How do you make it work? 

Keep it thematic. The most successful examples integrate retail into their concept. The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog ties the idea into its name. Located in an historic building in Manhattan’s waterfront district, the two-story taproom and lounge styles itself as a 19th century Irish-American saloon, and the grocery sales area is a vital part of that historical theme. A 19th century temperance movement in Ireland forced tavern owners to turn their establishments into other businesses such as grocery stores, called “spirit groceries,” explains Dead Rabbit co-owner Sean Muldoon. During the same period in New York, immigrant Irish gangs—including the infamous Dead Rabbits—congregated in illegal drinking establishments hidden behind grocery stores. “These ‘speakeasy’ style bars were known as grog shops,” says Muldoon, and were the inspiration for his recently opened bar and grocery where customers can buy imported Irish and English specialties and carry them home in old-fashioned logoed shopping bags.

Merchant in Madison, Wisconsin, also plays upon the retail theme in its name and concept. “The premise was to bring craft cocktails to Madison,” explains co-owner Josh Berkson. “My partner Patrick Sweeney and I opened this grocery concept to feature the products we use in-house, which evolved into a mini liquor store.” Besides crafting cocktails at the bar, Merchant retails for off-premise all of the wine, beer, spirits and bottled mixers that it serves on-premise.

Create a destination. Grocery offerings have to go beyond what potential consumers could find in the local supermarket or package store. Hard-to-find items are the ticket.

Irish ex-pats seek out their fix for homegrown delicacies at The Dead Rabbit, which stocks uncommon imports such as Barry’s Irish Tea, Hartley’s Marmalade and Branston Original Pickle. “Customers come in especially to buy them,” says Muldoon. “The delicacies from Ireland are our best-selling products.” The display at the end of the bar catches the attention of casual customers as well, intrigued by the unusual brands and packaging.

With over 40 Bourbons and ryes, dozens of gins, vodkas and Scotches, plus hard-to-find cordials and bitters, Merchant boasts one of the largest selections of spirits in Madison, as well as the restaurant-bar’s extensive collection of wine and raft beer for take-out. The inventory, complete with prices, lines dining room shelves, forming a utilitarian and unusual element of Merchant’s décor. “There are a lot of esoteric cocktail components people may not be familiar with,” points out Berkson. “We showcase those products; customers ask questions. We figured there were sales opportunities there, retail-wise.”

Cross-utilize and cross-promote. The chef at The Dead Rabbit uses many of the grocery items in his dishes. “We serve Branston pickles with the sausage roll on our menu and Colman’s mint sauce with our baby lamb chops. Many plates are garnished with imported Haywards pickled onions and cornichons,” says Muldoon. The bar’s website features an online store where customers can purchase the elaborate menu book, poster art, bitters and tickets for events. “This may lead into us delivering groceries down the line and taking that element a bit more seriously,” he adds.

All the wine, beer and spirits Merchant serves are available for off-premise sale. “Customers will have a glass of wine in the dining room, and then buy a bottle of the wine to go,” explains Berkson. “Or they will enjoy a cocktail at the bar, ask the bartender how to make it, then pick up the amaro, vermouth, gin and bitters and try mixing the drink at home.” The take-away concept is prominently explained on the menu. Guests transact with their server and the purchase is added to the dining check.


Additionally, Merchant hosts several dinners every month, featuring brands such as Templeton Rye, Pierre Ferrand Cognac, Wild Turkey and North Shore Distillery. Berkson also plans to offer cocktail classes down the line. “The events give a boost to retail sales,” he notes, “everyone buys a bottle afterwards on their way out.”


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