By Jerry Soverinsky
While managing his unclesâ€™ four Shell stations, in the midst of escalating gas prices and shrinking margins, Patrick McEvoy discovered that the future of selling fuel offered uncertain returns. "Late last year, I started thinking about whatâ€™s next, what happens when gas goes away," he said. "What happens when taxes are crazy? Are we doomed?"
Just 30 years old at the time and already a seasoned c-store veteran (his great grandfather began working in the convenience industry in 1932), the Washington state native wanted to open his own store, but knew he wanted something different â€" he just didnâ€™t know what.
Restless with ideas and concepts that werenâ€™t quite resonating, McEvoy discovered his convenience store calling during a trip to Portland. "They have a great beer store, Belmont Station. Itâ€™s a huge store, and you can buy beer and walk through this hole in the wall to this other room and drink the beer onsite," he said.
In researching how to implement the concept at home, McEvoy learned that a new law in Washington allows retailers to fill and sell craft beers in growlers; retailers with a special license endorsement can also sell beer for on-premise consumption.
"It was a big â€˜a-ha!â€™ moment," McEvoy said, realizing that his concept could actually take shape. In early fall, he learned of a Seattle store that began selling beer on tap, and the owner provided valuable assistance on liquor law requirements.
McEvoy opened his store, Elizabeth Station, on a main thoroughfare in a mostly residential section of Bellingham in early March, though he began promoting the opening far earlier with Twitter and Facebook tactics he picked up at a social media conference.
"We marketed it through Twitter and Facebook; itâ€™s been unbelievably successful," he said. "But you canâ€™t just put up a Facebook page with photos, if you donâ€™t grab someoneâ€™s attention with the first few, theyâ€™re not going to be impressed or pay attention to future ones."
So McEvoy crafted his Facebook page with a highly personal touch, opening an intimate dialogue with "friends," allowing them to share in the storeâ€™s minor setbacks as well as triumphs.
"When we had problems with the city and were trying to open at a certain date and we werenâ€™t going to make it, I posted the delay," he said. "And it was interesting; people really felt they understood the store and who we are."
Following his beer passion, McEvoy has made Elizabeth Station a true beer connoisseurâ€™s destination, with 800 craft beers filling 11 coolers. "We have a great selection, I wanted to be the best selection in town," he said proudly.
The sip-and-shop concept is also center stage at the store, with five taps that offer the "craziest, most fun beers" he can find for his customers, to drink onsite or take home in growlers. "Weâ€™ve sold Creamsicle-flavored beer, a chocolate chili lambic, even an oyster stout," McEvoy said.
Most of the craft beers are regionally brewed and promoted through social media, and they have been selling quickly. "The Creamsicle Sour was gone in six hours," he said.
As for on-premise consumption, McEvoy said there are many no-nos when it comes to allowing customers to drink onsite. "The laws are quite specific about on-premise consumption," he said, "and prohibit customers from opening alcohol, drinking out of the original container or leaving a store with an open container."
McEvoy dispenses beer into customized glassware that bears his storeâ€™s logo in 10-ounce or pint-sized servings for $3.
"The beer is doing extremely well; we didnâ€™t have a specialized beer shop in town so it wasnâ€™t tough, thereâ€™s not a lot of competition here," he said. "The beer has definitely been the huge drawâ€¦[my customers] love the selection and they can fill growlers."
While McEvoy said he uses his giant beer selection to drive people to his store, once there, they find a wide selection of local offerings - bakery items, milk and beef jerky, to name a few â€" along with traditional c-store basics.
While the stores he previously managed offered typical wholesaler breakfast programs â€" pastries and frozen burritos â€" McEvoy wanted to offer more wholesome choices. So he decided to bring to life a 20-year-old idea his friends dreamed up while in middle school.
"My buddies came up with the idea of a cereal bar, and we used to think it would revolutionize the world," he said. "But itâ€™s a healthy option, one thatâ€™s fun and different," he said.
The cereal bar offers 20 varieties (though not all of them wholesome, McEvoy concedes), along with three different milks from local dairies. Large bowls filled to the top with a customerâ€™s cereals-of-choice cost just three bucks â€" including milk â€" and McEvoy set aside four tables for in-store eating.
While itâ€™s too early to spot shopping trends, McEvoy said customer feedback has been strong. "We havenâ€™t sold a ton of cereal, but the enthusiasm is definitely there."
As for the future, McEvoy said he hopes Elizabeth Station will continue to carve out a neighborhood and even regional niche, becoming a destination for both locals and beer lovers.
"I want this to be an experience for [our customers], not a run-of-the-mill store," he said. "What they take away should be fun and memorable."
Jerry Soverinsky is a NACS Magazine contributing writer and a NACS Daily writer.