Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Ice House

Have you noticed that no one actually calls them "convenience stores"?  Personally, I don’t really find them all that convenient as I usually get stuck behind some idiot wanting to purchase two dozen different types of lottery tickets.  (I shouldn’t complain:  I think the state's taxing the mathematically challenged is a wonderful idea.)

What you actually call the stores probably depends on where you grew up.  I’ve noticed that people from back east continue to call them “WaWa", even though I don’t think that there is in reality a store bearing that name within a two day’s drive in any direction from here.  People from California ask for the nearest Circle K, while   friends from south of the border prefer an “Oxxo” store.  

When I was growing up in Texas, they were called ‘icehouses’ because of the peculiar liquor laws the state had.  A large portion of the state was dry and real bars were illegal throughout the state.  There were “private clubs” where members could store their own bottles of liquor and purchase a “set up” from the club, this being usually an ice-filled glass and some form of mixer, from which the member could make his own drink.  Visitors to the club sometimes had to search as long as a whole minute before finding a 'Guest Membership Card' lying outside on the sidewalk.

Most people desiring a mixed drink, simply purchased their own bottles of liquor from local package stores, and if they were unlucky enough to live in a dry county, they could usually find such a store just across the county line on any major highway.  Once they had said bottle cleverly hidden in a brown paper bag, they went to the local icehouse and purchased a bottle of coke and a plastic glass full of ice.  (Contrary to popular belief, no state has ever actually required alcohol purchases be hidden in paper bags, nor does keeping the bottle in such a bag protect you from being ticketed under open container laws.)

One of the unintended consequences of prohibition was that many beer drinkers switched to drinking hard liquor.  Beer was rarely bootlegged across borders, unlike bottled liquor, because of its greater weight and volume.  For most of the prohibition era, it was much more convenient to drink whiskey than beer.

During prohibition, many breweries tried to keep their doors open through the madness by marketing legal “near beer”, a brew with a very low alcohol volume—being less than half a percent alcohol by weight.  Drinkers frequently turned the low-octane brew into “needle beer” by injecting alcohol through the bottle cap.  When prohibition ended in the rest of the country, real beer was still illegal in most of Texas and in several other states.

In New York, one brewery loaned money to small entrepreneurs to open up little cafes, usually along highways, to sell hot dogs and their brand of near beer.  These places eventually became known as ‘brass rails”, a term for a convenience stores that has almost completely vanished from use.

As Texas slowly relaxed its puritanical “blue laws" and liquor laws, the icehouses started selling still another version of beer, with an alcohol content of 3.2%.  While the breweries called it low alcohol beer, most drinkers referred to it as “three two” or continued to call it near beer.  While a few states—Minnesota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Utah—still allow businesses to sell only near beer, state-run stores can sell you full beer.  (Oklahoma also requires that the full beer has to be sold at room temperature.  “Okay, you can have a beer, but you can’t enjoy it.”)

Eventually, Texas allowed the sale of real beer, at least in most counties, but fifty out of 254 counties are still dry, and eventually, the ice houses started selling more beer than ice.  Over time, as they added more and more products for sale, it was inevitable, too, that they would start selling gasoline, so that ice houses in Texas started looking like convenience stores all over the world.  Today, in some urban markets, a few stores sell more coffee than beer. 

As a matter of fact, the Dallas-based Southland Ice Company had so many little icehouses selling beer, that it started calling them ‘Tote’m’ stores, ultimately changing the name to “7-Eleven”.  Today, there are over 64,000 of these 7-eleven stores worldwide, making this the largest such chain by a wide margin.  (They outnumber their ten largest competitors combined.)

Here in Southern New Mexico, we have a chain called “PicQuik”, and the owners must be terrified of competition, since they have opened so many stores that it seems there is always one in sight.  There are three within a mile of my house, and seven within two miles.  

Several of these locations feature a small restaurant called Santa Fe Grill where you can purchase a burrito made to order (among other things)—the whole operation is sort of like a stationary food truck.  There has to be a secret ingredient in those burritos because they are addictive.  I regularly hear from former residents of New Mexico (almost all our young people—especially the college grads—are eventually forced to move out of state seeking employment)—that the first thing they have to do when coming back for a visit is to hit Santa Fe Grill.  Locally, if someone asks you if you want to go get a burrito, it is just assumed that you are going to a Santa Fe Grill.

Since their beginning, convenience stores have been all about changing to meet the immediate needs of their customers, so it should be no surprise to learn there are some dramatic experiments being conducted to create the store of tomorrow.  On the West coast, stores have opened up that sell only organic food.  Several large grocery chains are experimenting with small convenience stores located directly in front of their large regular stores, selling popular items like milk, sodas, and bread at the same prices as in the larger stores.

The most dramatic experiment is in Seattle, in the Amazon Go store.  The store actually opened years ago for Amazon employees, but it is now open to the general public.  While you have to have the Amazon app on your smart phone to enter, there are no checkout counters, no cash registers, no cashiers, and no cash.  As you simply take the items you want and leave, your Amazon account is automatically charged for the items you selected.

The store has dozens of cameras that watch everyone and keep track of what has been selected.  All the merchandise also sits on shelves that are actually digital scales that report to a central computer when an item is removed.  Without using facial recognition software, every customer is tracked and his selections are recorded.  According to Amazon, the system is 99.9% accurate, and the cost of the relatively few items it fails to charge for is less than the labor cost of hiring a cashier.

Ironically, the only human employee absolutely necessary is the clerk who checks your ID before you can purchase beer.

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