Monday, October 31, 2011

Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market to Offer Alcohol Beverage Tastings in Some of its California Stores

Breaking Buzz

Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market has applied for a license to hold wine and beer tastings at its store in the Willow Glen shopping center at Bird Avenue and Minnesota in San Jose, California. San Jose, which is the largest city in Northern California with over 1 million residents, is located in the South Bay Area region.

The photograph at top, taken today by a Fresh & Easy Buzz correspondent, shows the alcohol beverage tasting application sign on the front window of the store. The application is for a tasting license, as is noted on the second subject line. The store already offers alcoholic beverages for sale. You can click on the photo at top to enlarge it.

Employees of the store tell us the Willow-Glen neighborhood Fresh & Easy store plans to start holding tasting events as soon as the license application is approved by the California Alcohol Beverage Control Department.

Additionally, we've learned via our reporting that Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market  plans to apply for alcohol beverage tasting licenses for some of its other 134 stores in California.

United Kingdom-based Tesco, which is the third-largest retailer in the world after number two Carrefour of France and U.S.-based Walmart Stores, Inc., currently operates 183 Fresh & Easy grocery markets in the Western U.S. The other 49 Fresh & Easy stores are in Arizona (28 units) and Nevada (21 stores).

Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market hasn't publicly announced its plans to begin holding alcohol beverage tastings at its Willow Glen-San Jose store, or at any of its other grocery markets in California, or elsewhere.

New California law

Last year the California State Legislature passed a legislative bill (AB 605) that then-Governor Schwarzenegger signed  into law which loosed the restrictions on how alcohol beverage tastings are required to be conducted in retail stores in the Golden State.

The new law, which went into effect January 1, 2011, allows supermarkets, mass merchandisers and large liquor stores to host free wine, beer and distilled spirits tastings as long as the area where the tastings are conducted are separated out from the rest of the store by a temporary barrier of some sort, such as a rope, fence or chain.

Previously retailers were required to dedicate a permanent section of the store for the alcohol beverage tastings if they wanted to hold such events.

One retailer that's had such dedicated areas in its stores for a number of years is Northern California-based Beverages & More (BevMo), which is a category-killer format, specializing in the wine, beer and spirits categories, along with specialty foods.

However, besides BevMo, few grocers with stores in California have created such dedicated spaces in their stores in order to hold the tasting events.

Whole Foods Market and West Sacramento-based Raley's Supermarkets have in-store restaurants and cafe's in many of their respective stores in California. As a result, a number of the two chains' stores hold alcoholic beverage tastings in the restaurant/cafes, which not only qualified as a dedicated area under the old law but is a natural place to hold tastings because there's seating and food available.

For example, the Raley's store at 255 South Tracy Boulevard in Tracy, California holds alcoholic beverage tasting events in the store's restaurant/cafe every Wednesday from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Think happy hour. Tracy is in California's Northern Central Valley, about an hour's drive from San Francisco.

The restaurant and cafe, which is attached to but separate from the store's deli department, features prepared food and drink items in an eat-in area that has a seating bar, a lounging and eating area with tables and chairs and a big screen television set.

Pictured above and below: A recent wine tasting event at the Raley's superstore in Tracy, California. The photos were taken by a Fresh & Easy Buzz correspondent who attended the event, which also featured a full-spread of food, which you can see in the photo above.

Under the new law Raley's and Whole Foods Market, like all other grocers, can now hold the tastings elsewhere in the stores if they choose. But in those stores with dining and drinking-in areas - Whole Foods' has numerous stores in California, for example, that have either in-store wine or beer bars (and often both) where the drinks are available for sale by the glass - it makes good sense for a variety of reasons to do the tasting events in them.

Most of these Whole Foods' stores in California that have such in store features, which are attached to in store restaurants or food bars, hold alcoholic beverage tastings.

For example, the patio wine bar at Whole Foods' store in San Francisco's Potrero Hill District, where the grocer holds regular tastings, has become a neighborhood hangout and a third place, where people eat - food is available in the attached in-store restaurant - drink wine and catch up on what's happening with each other and in their neighborhood. Home and the workplace are the first and second places for most of us.

But most grocers in California haven't set up the dedicated spaces because square-footage is an extremely valuable commodity in a supermarket. Therefore it's difficult for a grocer to justify setting aside even 500 square-feet to be used only for alcoholic beverage tastings, particularly when that space can be used as merchandising space to produce sales on a daily basis.

The new law that went into effect in January of this year has opened the door for grocers to offer the tastings because they need only to temporarily rope off a section of the store, say in the beer, wine and spirits department, when they hold a tasting, rather then permanently dedicate valuable square-footage for the events, as was required under the old law.

Grocer interest growing

Not much application activity took place during the first few months of this year following the new law's taking effect. However its been picking up considerably over the last few months, according to a spokesperson for the state Alcohol Beverage Control Department.

We've also discovered a spate of recent activity among grocers in our reporting. For example, a number of Whole Foods' stores in Southern and Northern California have started conducting tastings, under the provisions of the new law, over the last few months, as have some stores operated by Southern California-based upscale grocer Bristol Farms.

Also in Southern California, Albertsons, which is owned by Supervalu, Inc., has applied for tasting licenses for some of its 200-plus stores in the region.

Mollie Stone's begins tastings

In Northern California, Mill Valley, California-based Mollie Stone's Markets, which operates nine stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, began its first alcohol beverage tastings - after recently receiving licenses at the stores - at six of its nine stores - three units in San Francisco and the stores in Burlingame and Greenbrae - on Friday, October 28.

Friday's Halloween-themed tasting, which was held from 3-6 p.m at the six supermarkets, featured Hornsby Hard Cider.

A spokesperson for Mollie Stone's told us the grocer is waiting to receive its tasting licenses for the other three stores, which are in San Bruno, San Mateo and Palo Alto, and that once it receives them from the state it plans to hold tasting events at those stores as well.

Mollie Stones has a number of  upcoming tastings planned. Some of the adult beverages a spokesperson for the grocer tells us will be sampled include wines from Ghost Pines, Edna Valley, Frei Brothers, Barefoot Bubbly, Red Rock and Dancing Bull. The grocer is also planning some upcoming spirits tastings, including having a mixologist create cocktails using Ketel One Vodka and Limoncello di Sonoma. Limocello is a popular Italian distilled spirit that's been catching on in the U.S. over the last few years.

The new supermarket tasting law is particularly advantages for grocers that operate small-format stores, like Tesco does with its Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market chain. The Fresh & Easy stores average about 10,000 square-feet of selling space.

Were it not for the loosening of the regulations under AB 605, a small-store chain like Tesco's Fresh & Easy would be extremely hard-pressed to even justify dedicating a couple hundred square-feet for the tastings on a permanent basis. It needs every square-foot it can get for merchandise.

More on the new law

The new law is also particularly advantageous for upscale and foodie- format-oriented food retailers, like Whole Foods, Bristol Farms and Mollie Stone's, for example, that do a lot of specialty and gourmet food sampling in-store. Now, for example, under the new alcohol beverage tasting law in California the grocers can offer wine and food pairing-type demonstrations, as long as the sampling takes place in the temporarily designated area required by the law.

The law has a number of requirements that retailers must follow in order to hold the alcohol beverage tastings in-store.

In order to qualify for the tasting license, retailers must already have an off-sale beer and wine permit, to do beer and wine tastings, and an alcohol beverage license, if they also want to conduct spirits tastings.

Then retailers must apply for and be granted a license from the state Alcohol Beverage Control Board, like Fresh & Easy is doing for the store in San Jose.

Retailers must pay a $300 application fee and $261 annual renewal fee for a state license to hold the tastings, which can only be conducted by alcohol beverage manufacturers or wholesalers. Significantly, store employees are prohibited from conducting the tastings, as are any other employees of the retailer holding the event.

Of additional significance, cities and counties have the right to restrict the alcohol beverage tasting events under the state law. That means retailers must follow any and all local regulations that may be in place in addition to the state law.

There are also a number of restrictions on how the tastings can be conducted in-store.

For example, participants must be 21-years-old or older, and it's the retailer's responsibility to verify that they're of legal age, even though the alcohol beverage manufacturer or distributor is conducting the tasting.

Only one type of alcoholic beverage can be offered per tasting event - either beer, wine or distilled spirits. But there can be no multiple combinations. Tequila shot with beer-chaser tastings are prohibited, for example.

The alcoholic beverages sampled at the events must be given free to the participants.

The free tastings cannot occur before 10 a.m. or after 9 p.m.The manufacturer or distributor representatives conducting the tastings are allowed by law to serve a person no more than 8 ounces of free beer in a day, which is 4 ounces less than a standard 12-ounce can; and up to three samplings of wine or distilled spirits, at maximums of 1 ounce and a quarter-ounce per sampling, respectively.

If tasters ask more alcohol they the law allows to be offered at the tastings the manufacturer or distributor conducting the tasting is instructed to explain the legal limits to them. If they persist, the retailer can ask them to leave the event and the store.

Fresh & Easy

Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market sells beer and wine in all but two of its stores in California. The grocer offers distilled spirits (hard liquor) in a number of its stores in California but not in the majority of the 134 units.

The Fresh & Easy store in San Jose's Willow Glen neighborhood has been one of the grocery chain's top-three sales performing stores, out of the 15 units opened so far this year in Northern California, since it opened on March 2, according to our sources.

The store, along with the unit in Danville, were the first two Fresh & Easy stores Tesco opened in Northern California.

The wine category is a major focus for Tesco with the Fresh & Easy stores; more so than beer or distilled spirits. Therefore, it's our analysis that wine tastings will comprise the majority of alcohol beverage testing events held at the store on Bird Avenue in San Jose, although not exclusively, as we expect some beer tasting to go on as well.

1 comment:

Fresh & Easy Buzz said...

A regular reader and contributor to Fresh & Easy Buzz (who asked we not mention his name but said the Raley's folks would know who he is) sent this note via-e-mail on Christmas Eve, in hope we'd publish it, and the management of West Sacramento-based Raley's would see it.

We're no Saint Nick, although our stockings are hung by the chimney with care in hope that St. Nick soon will be here.

But since it is Christmas, we're more than happy to publish the note from our valued reader and contributor, in hope that it perhaps makes his Christmas even more the merry.

Here it is:

"My wife and I are part of the regular crowd at the weekly wine tastings at the Raley's store in Tracy. As a result, we are on a first-name basis with most of the staff, from the managers to the stockers and even some of their family members.

"We went shopping Christmas Eve and ended up exchanging hugs and joking around with more than a half-dozen of our Raley's friends.

"We've never hugged anyone at Safeway or Savemart. That's not acomplaint, just points out how much we and our Raley's have become close friends. We also hugged one front-end person at Costco, too.

"Raley's -- Dave, the manager and his team -- run a very happy store."