Sunday, August 31, 2008

Whither Party Source

[Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the writer only and is not intended to represent those of the rest of the Beerjanglin' stable.]

When I think of the Party Source in Syracuse, NY, I think of the film "Gladiator" from the year 2000. The film won the Academy Award that year for Best Picture, though in reflection it is a mediocre movie at best. But when compared against the very weak competition of the films of 2000, "Gladiator" somehow stood out as the best of its peers.

The Party Source, located in the ugliest green building on Erie Boulevard East in Syracuse, is not a great beer store by any stretch, but's probably the best we have.

It caters mostly to college kids, selling blocks of Busch and Natural Ice by the gross, and finding ways to move keg after keg -- despite New York's ludicrous keg laws, which in my opinion actually encourage binge drinking rather than suppress it.

The store is built like an open warehouse that is half-empty. When you walk in, to the left you see nothing but empty floor space, with the occasional odd case of macro-lager that someone decided to put down.

Straight ahead is the register, and toward the far wall is a cooler that has a decent mix of commercial and craft brews. It's a nice selection and would be the envy of almost any grocery store.

On the floor are cases upon cases, often set up in some kind of geometrical order, but not at all pleasing to the eye. They are usually stacked no more than two cases high, rather than in a tall display, and you usually have to step over them rather than go around them.

The wall to the right is what keeps me going back: it's a collection of craft brewed six packs organized nicely by brewery and country. To the far left of this wall is the seasonal selections (this month it's Southern Tier Harvest, Dogfish Head Punkin, and Long Trail Harvest, to name a few). Strafing to the right will show a collection of European and "European style" brews, mostly from England. And about halfway down the wall come all the micro- and craft brews we love so much. This wall is what makes Party Source a destination beer store.

The reason that I keep coming to Party Source is because it is the only beer store in the area where you can purchase off-the-shelf mixed six packs that are not confined to a few select brews that the store allows you to buy. In other words, you can try any one bottle of beer, and just pay the a la carte price for it. Other than it's above-average selection, this is the one aspect of Party Source that makes it worth repeat visits.

I must say, however, that the store has been going downhill for a while now. And I want to briefly share my experience there Friday, which was frustrating, disappointing and disheartening.

First of all, there is a rack where the "unsold" beers go that can be bought individually by the bottle. These beers, by and large, have been in the store for months and months, and often have dust on them. They are not sold at any kind of discounted price, such as $8.99 a six pack, which would be a fair deal. The beers I have selected from this shelf have often been old and musty -- not always, but sometimes. It would behoove the owner of the store to come up with some sort of pricing compromise so that he can move these beers off the shelves, and as well as giving the paying customer a bit of a price break.

The selection that the store carries has been disappointing lately. It's not that they don't carry a great deal of excellent beers, because they do. But they haven't been rotating the selection as well. In other words, every time I go, there are usually no more than 5-6 new beers at any given time. We are left with the same selection that we have had previously, and who knows how old they are -- since most beers don't have a "brewed-on date" on the label.

What was most disappointing Friday was the service.

The old curmudgeon that runs the store is always in an apparently foul mood. He answers the most basic questions with a sort of "why are you bothering me?" tone. But he knows me. He knows my face and he gets money from me on a consistent basis. I once dropped $90 there for little more than a couple of six packs. I am what you would call "a regular."

So Friday, I bought a mixed six pack (possibly coming up for a "6Pac" review) and two regular six packs: Southern Tier Harvest Ale and Victory Storm King Stout. The old curmudgeon was standing at the register and on the phone, so I placed my items on the shelf to patiently wait for him.

He hung up the phone and looked as if he was about to ring me out. Suddenly, the phone rang again, and he picked it up and decided he was more interested in talking to the person on the phone than ringing out the familiar face standing at his counter.

I have worked in customer service capacities for a good portion of my life, and one of the cardinal rules you go by is that if a customer is waiting for you, you don't turn your back on them, whether on the phone or not. And if you do get a phone call, all you have to do is make eye contact with the person at the counter and give them the "one second" sign. (Mouthing "one second" is a nice bonus.) The curmudgeon not only stopped paying attention to my transaction, but he actually turned around and walked away, turning his full attention to the prospective customer on the phone. (He mentioned someone who had called before that needed over 120 thirty-packs of Natural Ice for the evening and that Party Source the only place he would be able to get it. Yeah, the SU and LeMoyne kids are definitely back in town.)

So I stood and waited. And waited a few more minutes. The Party Source only has one register, and so no more than one transaction can take place at a time. An oafish employee saw that I was waiting, and to his credit, attempted to make his way to the register to ring me out, but the curmudgeon was "hogging" the register and the oaf had to nudge him out of the way.

The oaf took my mixed six pack and removed all the bottles from the holder, giving me a "How's it goin', boss?" for my trouble. With a big sigh, he looked up each beer in his computer as if he were using a Lexis-Nexis search, painstakingly placing each beer back into its respective compartment. When he was done, he sighed and said, "Those mixed beers are a pain in the ass," before giving me my total.

Now, if I may digress for a moment: I'm sure that scanning each individual beer is a pain in the ass. I've worked retail before, and it's always harder to scan multiple items. But maybe, as the beer distributor, you should a) find a more efficient way of scanning these items, b) stop offering singles altogether or c) keep your frustration hidden from the customer. The mixed six packs are the only reason I go to this place more than only every six months or so. There are other places -- like Brilbecks, Galeville and now Wegmans -- that have good selections of six- and twelve-packs of beers, and their employees don't make you feel like you're inconveniencing them.

Anyway, the guy said "Have a good night, boss" to which I gave an uncharacteristically curt "Yup" before walking out the door with beer in hand but not satisfaction in my shopping experience.

I'm frustrated, because there is no reason that this store can't be a world-class beer hub, along the lines of Oliver's in Albany, Finger Lakes Beverage in Ithaca or Beers of the World in Rochester. Space is being completely wasted in this building, which is located in a burgeoning beer-centric city. The city of Syracuse is a growing beer community, and the store would be ripe for not only expanding the floor space, but dialing up the selection as well. Any city that can make profitable enterprises out of Clark's Ale House, the Blue Tusk and Al's Wine & Whiskey would benefit from having a central marketplace for bringing home all the finest beers from around the country.

Instead, while it's still probably the best we have, it all comes off as very half-assed. And worse, there is no joy in the store; it doesn't make you feel like you are in any kind of beer haven, but rather a warehouse selling widgets. It's too bad that some enterprising company can't come in and give the Party Source a run for it's money, and maybe force them to step up their game.

Syracuse deserves better.


The Foaming Head said...

Just moved to Albany. I love Oliver's as the service and selection are great, but you do have to be careful that some of the beers are not past their prime. This is of course a natural product of such a huge inventory and that the service there is great. Also, Beers of the World in Rochester is amazing to, Kudos to these great beer places in NY. Another reason NY beer is the best.

Middle Class Middle Aged White Guy said...

Found this post while looking for info as to why "Party Source" is now "Kashmir Indian Grocery".... Only other info I found is that PS was sold back in August.

"Crappy beer store" is still better than "NO beer store". First Galeville and now Party Source??? Fortunately, I live close enough to Craig's Kegs in Sherrill - who have a pretty decent selection.