It’s just after 4:30 p.m. on a Friday, and almost all the bar’s high-top tables are occupied. A bachelorette party has just descended in what looks like the first stop on their night out, as the live DJ starts up Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” I order two glasses of Clos du Bois Chardonnay, which are filled almost to the brim of their 9-ounce plastic cups and set me back just $3 apiece. From where I’m sitting, I can almost touch the rotisserie chicken display.
This is the buzzing Friday night happy hour at the Mariano’s supermarket in Chicago’s East Lakeview neighborhood. You’ll find digital communications manager Ryan Unsworth here probably twice a week, but he doesn’t like to say he’s a regular — more of a frequent voyeur.
“I go maybe one to two times a week, so I guess that makes me a regular,” he says. “I usually go for a drink or two and leave. It’s probably the cheapest place to grab a drink in Lakeview. But the people watching is kind of the best part.”
Grocery store bars aren’t anything new, nor are they unique to Chicago. But they seem to have taken on a life of their own here as a transitory — and particularly lively — sort of third place. Indeed, the crowd here is refreshingly, generationally, and racially diverse — more akin to an airport or city transit station than modern-era bar, though perhaps that’s to be expected in a place where people also run essential weekly errands. What intrigues Unsworth more is how many of these drinkers have become friends.
“There’s a sense of community insomuch as some people are really close and others just show up,” he says. “In a way it has that level of a church.”
‘Prices, pours, and people watching’
The in-store bar was born largely out of economic necessity for a hyper-competitive supermarket industry. Whole Foods Market debuted its first in 2009, kicking off a broader push by grocery store chains to create multifaceted retail experiences that keep shoppers in stores longer and get them to spend more money. The urgency for this already tight-margin industry has undoubtedly ramped up amid the rise of online shopping. (As of 2022, 54 percent of U.S. consumers said they purchased groceries online within the past year, though this was down from 59 percent the year before, according to a survey by Coresight Research.)
Whole Foods had more than 200 in-store bars sprinkled across the country serving mostly beer and wine, as of late 2017. Publix operates 13 bars across its Greenwise Markets and a handful of traditional stores throughout its home state of Florida that offer beer and wine. Select Albertson’s stores likewise feature in-store bars with beer, wine, and cocktails. Out of the 44 Midwestern Kroger-owned Mariano’s locations, 22 have a bar selling beer and wine, with some offering ready-to-drink and signature cocktails as well.
“Prices, pours, and people watching,” says marketing project director Elizabeth Otto, a former Chicagoan and Mariano’s bar regular, to neatly sum up the grocery store bar’s appeal. She and longtime friend, senior program manager Jamie Heunink, started going to the Ukrainian Village Mariano’s bar near their apartment in 2019. At first, the generous $5 rosé pours merely sweetened an inevitable chore, with the added benefit of an occasional live piano soundtrack. (Every Mariano’s bar features weekly live music from local musicians.)
“Grocery shopping can be a tedious task so to have a glass of wine while doing it makes it so much more enjoyable,” Heunink says. That, plus the naughtiness of it all appeals to Otto, in the vein of strolling around New Orleans’ French Quarter with an open container. “I have an affinity for drinking anywhere that it’s not natural to drink — on boats, in the car, at the airport,” she says. “If it feels a little wrong, I’m drawn to it.”
Post-Covid, the women started going to the bar at the Lincoln Park Mariano’s once or twice a week not just to shop but for fun — to drink for cheap and break up the week. They got to know the bartenders. They popped in to catch games, knowing they wouldn’t have to worry about finding a table.
“It felt like drinking at home but being more social than that, even if it was just Jamie and me,” Otto says.
Before they moved to Milwaukee, they held their goodbye party at the Lincoln Park Mariano’s bar. It was a funeral theme: Otto wore a veil, Heunink wore lace gloves. They bought a bunch of snacks from around the store — “again, lawless!” Otto says with a laugh — and pushed several tables together. (For the uninitiated, customers purchase snacks at the register then bring them back to the bar.)
As far as Heunink and Otto are concerned, Mariano’s was as close to a third place as they had in Chicago.
“Mariano’s is where we were happiest,” Heunink says. Grocery store bars are thinner on the ground in Milwaukee, but they wasted no time in finding one, in the basement of an Italian market and deli called Groppi Food Market.
Why not drink at a grocery store?
Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” in the 1980s as a referential catchall for the places we spend time between home (the “first place”) and work (the “second place”) — where we go to build community, have a good time, and exchange ideas. They can exist virtually, but Oldenburg says the most effective for community-building are physical places where people can routinely connect, like churches, parks, fast-food places, and neighborhood bars.
“It’s a comfy environment, you know the area, enjoy the company and familiarity. If you think about it, people probably go to grocery stores a lot more than bars. Why wouldn’t you have the same feeling in a grocery store?”
“People become regulars at bars, and that’s not weird,” says Mike Zoller, Midwest editor for porchdrinking.com and bar regular at the Lincoln Park location of Dom’s Kitchen & Market, an independent supermarket mini-chain. “Why? It’s a comfy environment, you know the area, enjoy the company and familiarity. If you think about it, people probably go to grocery stores a lot more than bars. Why wouldn’t you have the same feeling in a grocery store?”
Zoller says he and his wife have embraced the supermarket bar with age and since having a child. They relish the chance to sneak in a beer or glass of wine while on an errand, and in a place that’s within walking distance of their house, not too loud, and full of snack, lunch, and dinner options. In fact, Zoller recently went so far as to post a five-stop grocery store bar crawl on his TikTok, which racked up over 48,500 views and comments that ranged from horrified (“my worst nightmare”) to delighted (“I’ve found my people”).
Maybe it’s deals like $2 off wines on Wine Down Wednesdays, as at Whole Foods, that keep them coming back, or the entertainment bells and whistles, or that stores make a point to offer local microbeers and signature cocktails and bring in a rotating cast of mixologists and winemakers (and actor Mark Wahlberg from Flecha Azul at the Ravenswood Mariano’s) for demos and tastings. As far as Unsworth is concerned, the crowd is a draw all its own.
“Tonight is a little slower than usual,” he tells me, as we sip our fruity, oaky Chard. “I’ve seen the line for drinks, like, 20 people deep on a Friday.”
He points out an older woman perched at the end of the bar who almost always comes in with a book. Next to her, two other regulars with probably 20 years’ age difference between them chat animatedly. “They definitely met here,” he says. Meanwhile, the bachelorette party has dispersed to grab a smattering of snacks from the grill station, prepared foods section, and chip aisle. A regular who held his wedding reception here a few months ago arrives, dispensing hugs all down the bar before grabbing a seat.
“At the reception one of the Mariano’s employees bought them chocolate-covered strawberries as a wedding present and brought them over during her shift,” Unsworth says. “See? I told you the people watching is amazing.”
Unsworth himself started frequenting Mariano’s bar about six months ago, after his ex-girlfriend moved out. Because he works from home, he missed being around other people in those semi-anonymous urban settings that many have yet to fully embrace again since Covid. He never really felt the need to be a regular at a bar, however.
“I feel like there’s a stigma to it,” he says. He occasionally wonders if he shouldn’t come here as often for that very reason.
Maybe he’s not “in the mix” with the 20-odd regulars who’ve become friends at Mariano’s, as he insists. Yet he was pulled into photos with the regular couple who had their wedding reception here. He has longtime bartender Carol Roth’s number in his phone, and his online dating profile says, “After work you can find me at Mariano’s happy hour.”
When I caught up with him a few weeks later, Unsworth was heading to a lunch date in Hyde Park with Roth and another regular: an older woman who’s originally from Istanbul. That weekend, the three of them had plans to take a 25-mile bike ride. After all, there’s nothing wrong with becoming a little less anonymous at the church of Mariano’s bar.