Would you pay $9 for a brown-bagged tall boy?
Ironic melding of high-brow and low-brow culture is nothing new in the food and beverage world. Bars cheekily named “country clubs” can be found in many gentrifying urban neighborhoods, and 40-ounce bottles of rosé were one of the hottest (and most contentious) chilled beverages of the summer. But these ventures raise an important question: Where do we draw the line between playful nods to street culture and tone-deaf appropriation? Over the past year, there’s been widespread backlash against business owners who take it too far, like the pricey Crown Heights bar that decided bullet hole-decorated walls made for clever, totally appropriate décor.
The latest bar to try towing this line is The Lately, which opened in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District in March. Their website promises “an upscale dive bar experience” with “twists on classics like Bodega Beers and test tube shots.” (Editor's note: Since this article's October 31 publication, The Lately has removed the brown bagged tallboys from their menu, writing in a statement: "While we meant no disrespect in serving our 'dressed up' cans in paper bags, we appreciate you bringing the unintended cultural implications to our attention. We've pulled them from the menu.")
An October press release spotlights “unique and delicious beer specials,” like beer pitcher slushies and Bodega Beers. “The Lately’s giving its canned beers some special treatment with its Bodega Beers program,” the press release announced, “which will set you up with your choice of can nestled in a brown paper bag and topped with flavored salts and sauces.”
These gentrified tall boys will run customers $9.
Bodegas, in particular, have been in the spotlight lately after some veterans of Google tried to launch a concept called "Bodega" with the goal of making New York's signature corner convenience stores, often run by immigrant families, obsolete. New Yorkers have strong feelings about their bodegas, and the company ended up issuing an apology (though doesn’t seem to have changed their name).
So can businesses channel bodegas without being offensive? The Lately thinks so. Their PR clarified that the official name on the menu is “traveling beers,” and that the spices and mixers make it like a michelada. “The bag is pretty functional as it keeps the tasty, but messy, ingredients off of your hands,” says a publicist representing the bar.
Adam Fulton, co-founder of Den Hospitality (which runs The Lately along with LDV Hospitality) says that that the bodega beer program isn’t meant to cause offense, but rather pay homage to a unifying New York experience.
"Getting a beer in a bag is a pretty ubiquitous experience that spans class borders, at least if you live in New York City,” says Fulton. “When I first started working in the city, I took a commuter bus and train home every day, and I’d guess half of the people on the mass transit had a brown bag vice—to take the edge off after a long day and during a long commute. If you go to any deli, bodega, corner shop, whatever you want to call them and grab a beer from the fridge, they’re putting it in a bag for you—whether you ask or not, no matter your background.”
Fulton also cites the practical aspect of the brown paper bags, saying, “We needed the bag to keep the drinks clean for guests to enjoy, and it just made sense to reference a very New York experience."
Not everyone is buying it, however. Sam Stein, who teaches Urban Studies at Hunter College and writes about gentrification in New York, says, “One way gentrification works is by mimicking the things it displaces—kind of like how suburban developers will name their subdivisions after the kinds of trees they bulldozed to build them. Fancy business owners think it's cute to reference the gritty things they helped destroy, but the rest of us find it gross and annoying."
Whether you prefer to get your beer bagged in a bodega or an upscale dive bar, there’s no doubt that it’s an evocative symbol.