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‘Dying’ Package-Goods Bars May Be Best Positioned to Survive Pandemic

Meet Me at the (Don’t Say) Slashie for a Shot and a Six-Pack to Go

For many Chicagoans, the most visceral links to the city’s manufacturing-powerhouse past exist within its disappearing hot dog stands, 24-hour diners, and neighborhood taverns. These places have endured since opening near factory hubs and “L” stops to serve working-class Chicagoans coming off long-ass shifts.

Perhaps the most curious subspecies of neighborhood bar is the combination bar/liquor store, historically known as a package — or packaged, depending on what the owner put on the sign — goods shop or taproom (we’ll get to the term “slashies” later). Literally a bar on one side and a liquor store on the other, they’re the no-frills kinds of joints close to transit where you pop in for a pint then buy a case of beer to take home. Set beneath Old Style signs and wide awnings bearing descriptors like “cut rate prices!” with windows covered in Miller Lite and Bud Light neons, they’re easy to walk right by.

Inside, the retail portion often dominates square footage; shelves full of bottles spill into the narrow bar, which sports a few worn stools, a TV, and maybe an arcade game or two. The crowd reflects the neighborhood: Salty oldtimers lord over their regular stools next to dive-loving hipsters draining whiskey shots. Meanwhile, a revolving cast of every drinking sort passes through to pick up six-packs and bottles of Tito’s.

Now COVID-19 is threatening to wipe out this special category of neighborhood joint, like so many of Chicago’s third places, as lawmakers continue to suppress in-store capacities to stem the virus’s spread without offering any aid to stanch months of financial bleeding. Packaged-goods shops were already an endangered bar subspecies, facing existential threats ranging from citywide gentrification to a slew of new booze-slinging competitors and a mayoral dynasty with a puritanical streak. (Between 1990 and 2005 alone, Mayor Richard M. Daley facilitated more than 1,000 tavern license revocations, according to Chicago magazine.)

Business is down 75 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels at Marie’s Pizza and Liquors in Mayfair, which turns 80 later this year. That this package-goods stalwart is bringing in any revenue at all is due solely to pizza and liquor carryout and delivery. The dine-in side has been closed since March, and owner Nadine Karavidas applied for but didn’t receive governmental aid. Instead, she lined a section of the liquor store shelves with faux-brick wallpaper where she directs masked customers to pick up their pizzas for carryout, while behind the scenes she barely had the cash to cover payroll, let alone a series of broken appliances and 12 days of closure in June due to civic unrest.

“I don’t know how people are surviving,” Karavidas says. “I put in resources I’d scraped together from staying in a very narrow lane. No doubt I have gratitude that I have the ability to do some business, as opposed to somebody that has no opportunity to do business. My opinion about all this is that the hospitality industry — that includes restaurants and bars — needs bailout support.”

One of the better unwritten rules

Package-goods shops started springing up just after Prohibition, close to manufacturing clusters, public transit, and working-class residential neighborhoods. They’re not to be confused with taverns like River North joint Rossi’s, where you grab cans of beer from a cooler and pay at the bar (and, since the bar reopened in September, take them to go). Nor are slashies quite the corner stores where patrons buy lottery scratcher tickets and twelvers of High Life.

Here, everything goes through the same cash register, but the two ways of buying booze remain separate. That’s owing to a longstanding city of Chicago rule that taverns can sell up to 10 percent of goods to go without needing a separate license, as long as they pay $50 for a combined on- and off-premise license.

“This is one of the better unwritten rule pieces of Chicago,” says Pat Doerr, managing director of the Hospitality Business Association of Chicago. He estimates there are currently fewer than 60 combination tavern/package good licenses around the city — several of which belong to craft brewery taprooms selling mostly to go. (For years, he’s been bellying up at oldtimers’ taverns, trying to convince the owners to peddle booze to go to pad in-store sales.)

“Every factory cluster, even the stockyards, had one or two bars where you could buy a pint with good package-goods selection,” he says. “Those are all gone.”

A young Greek immigrant named Theodore Karavidas acquired one of the city’s earliest such licenses, in 1940, to open Marie’s Liquors in the immigrant-dominated Mayfair neighborhood, which he named after his wife Mary. (Marie’s is not to be confused with Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Tavern, a well-stocked slashie in Bridgeport.) Theodore’s son George bought him out when George turned 21.

Around 1950, business-savvy George started serving crisp-edged, tavern-style pizza cut in squares to factory workers in need of a snack with their beers that wouldn’t spoil their appetite. Meanwhile, the liquor side of the business thrived. Since George’s cousin owned another successful local chain of liquor stores called Teddy’s Liquors — the last of which closed a few years ago — the family consolidated buying power.

And as the restaurant/bar side became a staple for neighborhood families, Marie’s gradually expanded west, into the building next door. The dining room, unchanged since 1979, is wrapped in wood paneling; mirrors etched with the Chicago skyline are suspended above its red banquettes.

“Our longevity was tied to the next generation of households, and my father knew everybody,” says Nadine Karavidas, daughter of the late George. “He knew everybody three generations back and two generations up, down to the medals they won in high school.”

A former actress and singer, Nadine Karavidas put her own stamp on the place after taking over in 2000. She expanded the liquor-store selection to include hard-to-find boutique wines, and Marie’s started featuring live music, which it’s since become known for.

Even before the pandemic, she felt the sting of a fast-evolving retail liquor industry — namely the remarkable variety now available at supermarket, pharmacy, and convenience store chains.

“I remember looking at our end-of-day, in-store numbers some years back and saw beer and wine sales were noticeably off,” she recalls. “It was on that very day that the Walgreens at Lawrence and Pulaski started selling beer and wine.”

Owners have evolved to keep up with their changing surroundings and younger, more affluent patrons. Logan Square packaged-goods shop Go Tavern has stood on Kedzie just west of Armitage Avenue since 1952, when it opened as Dorothy’s Liquors. When owner-manager Michael Stellatos bought the bar from his uncle in 2012 (renaming it Go to align with Go Grocer, the local corner-store chain his cousins own), he added 10 taps to the existing three, replaced the coolers, and spruced up the joint. Responding to customer requests, he also massively expanded the selection of craft beer, wine, and rare whiskeys.

Thanks to its late-night license, which allows it to serve until 3 a.m. on Saturdays, the bar has become a favorite for restaurant and bar workers for post-shift shots and beers. But “it’s a wide range of people that come in here and love the place,” says Stellatos. “I’ve got a lot of hipsters and people in their 60s and 70s who’ve been coming here 25 years that still come in for a beer. On weekends we get a mixed crowd of millennials and a few professional-type people.”

Gentrifiers are wont to denounce the whole category as blights, given the tendency of some to attract rough crowds prone to 2 a.m. fights and smashing bottles out front.

Within the past year alone, we’ve witnessed the death of two beloved slashies: Portage Park’s craft-beer emporium Fischman Liquors (which blamed stalled development after moving to the promising Six Corners) and Crown Liquors, a Prohibition holdover that likewise became a hipster favorite for craft brews, plus a game called “Hot Dice,” in which drinkers rolled dice to determine which shot they got. (It’s unclear whether the pandemic ultimately killed the bar.)

Meanwhile, a new generation of package-goods shops has emerged to suit changing demographics. All Together Now, a sunny low-intervention wine shop and all-day cafe hybrid in Ukrainian Village, operates with separate on- and off-premise licenses: “Shit, I didn’t know about the combination license thing,” says owner Erin Carlman Weber.

A Chicago-area native and Ukrainian Village resident for six years, Carlman Weber often used to pop by Ola’s Liquors, a narrow slashie with a red formica bar on Damen Avenue, “more for a drink more than the package-goods function,” she says. But she was so enamored with its multi-use nature and neighborhood vibe that she sought something similar when she opened All Together Now in 2018.

“That sort of mix of activities always made sense for me, but I tell you what, it felt like a liability for a long time,” she says. “I think people are familiar with the ‘slashie’ in the old-school way of thinking about it. But for us it was like, are you a restaurant? Wine shop? Cheese counter? What are you? I plowed ahead and had faith if we did it right, it would start to make sense to people as well.”

The problem with “slashies”

Carlman Weber can’t recall the first time she heard someone say “slashie” — though it was some time after she started planning All Together Now and searching for a pithier descriptor. Karavidas has never heard the term, despite being in the business since she was tall enough to reach the cash register. Nor had Stellatos until he took over Go eight years ago.

Regardless of what any number of listicles or hipsters may have told you, the term slashie didn’t officially enter Chicago vernacular until 2006, when Time Out Chicago published a story on alleged local lingo that included “Slashies (n.) Bars/liquor stores.” This is according to a 2009 edition of “The Straight Dope,” a longtime Q&A column in the Chicago Reader by Cecil Adams.

Turns out, the term doesn’t have anything to do with bars at all. In the Reader column, Bill Savage, who’s a professor of instruction at Northwestern University, writer, and longtime bartender, traced it to a scene in the 2001 movie Zoolander, in which Italian model Fabio made a cameo as himself and won something called the “Slashie Award,” doled out to the best actor-slash-model. The term “slashie,” meaning someone with dual roles or jobs, became fairly common after that; a recent Google search turned up 104,000 entries. Savage’s issue lies squarely with the claim that the term is authentic Chicagoese. Eleven years after the Reader piece, you can still get Savage riled about it in the same way you would if you told him putting ketchup on hot dogs is bona fide Chicago.

“I don’t think you can’t call package-goods store a slashie, but descriptively it’s not an old Chicago term,” he says. “I believe history matters, authenticity matters, and what we call each other matters. If the kids wanna call them slashies, I’m not going to argue. But if you say slashie to me, I will look at you like a bartender looking at a fake, out-of-town ID. There’s the door, get on the other side.”

A regular patron of well-worn Rogers Park slashie (sorry, Bill) Bruno’s Lounge since his 20s, Savage fully acknowledges that he now represents the very sort of salty old regular on the bar side who used to tell his younger self to fuck off.

When the meteor hit…

As COVID-19 all but doomed small independent bars to extinction this spring, package-goods stores suddenly had a lifeline in retail sales. As Savage points out, the condo owners who once disparaged the eyesore slashie to their aldermen may now be grateful for a place in walking distance that carries a decent selection of craft beer.

“The fact that package-goods shops can maintain retail sales when in-store taverns with no kitchen are shut down ironically means these kinds of divey, low-level places might have a survival advantage,” Savage says. “The taproom on the corner is like the scrawny mammal under a tree when the meteor hits and kills all the dinosaurs.”

For Go Tavern — where in-store and to-go sales historically went hand in hand — leaning into retail was fairly seamless. Stellatos flipped all the chairs over on the bar and hung a huge sign to deter bar patrons. Since most of the staff work just one or two days a week, he got them on rotating booze-delivery shifts to keep them on payroll after initially shutting down. What he’s most grateful for these days is his decision to open a small back patio about three years ago, which he expanded in 2019 and which allowed him to reopen the bar side in May.

“I expanded it as much as I could,” he says. “I lost my parking space, but at least we could keep the tables we had.”

Now he’s working on a way to winterize the back patio by installing a heated tent. After considering building an online store, he instead signed on with online booze-delivery service Drizly, which has only translated to about five additional orders per week.

“Right now, I’m playing it day by day,” he says. “It all comes down to if we’re going to make payroll.”

Karavidas and Carlman Weber play it day by day, too. The reality for these half-retailers — from chic to octogenarian — is that every sale is hard won, reflecting the nuances of urban life amid a pandemic.

“It’s always been about foot traffic with package-goods places,” Savage says. “Now it’s not just a matter of being in a densely populated neighborhood near the El. Are people who used to stop in on their way home going to get off their ass and order beer from you? Those who don’t own the building are fucked unless the retail side totally pays their nut.”

Retail is all that’s paying Carlman Weber’s nut, since this modern slashie has yet to reopen for indoor dining, with service limited to the walk-up window. While there’s no way of knowing how Chicago or its neighborhood ecosystems will change or stay the same once there’s a vaccine, for now most of the spots with hope of surviving are those that have leaned into the same multi-use approach that made Carlman Weber want to open her joint in the first place.

“Before the pandemic, people already were starting to know us as a place where they could pop in for happy hour or dinner, pick up a box of crackers, some cheese, and a bottle of wine,” she says. “We started to plant seeds. As confusing as it may have been for the first few months, it was an incredibly lucky strike.”

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