For most of us, the drive-thru is a place to grab a greasy burger on the fly or hit the ATM without having to enter a bank. But if you live in Ohio, Texas, Wyoming or a handful of other states, the drive-thru is also where you might pick up a six-pack after work, a bottle of wine to have with dinner, or a keg for the weekend—all from the comfort of your car.
Coinciding with the post–World War II expansion of the automobile industry, the drive-thru concept—initially food-focused—expanded to include groceries and booze. The Copper Still, opened in 1955 by Ben S. Wood in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, proclaimed itself the first drive-in liquor store in the country. Since most of the state was dry at the time, people shied away from being seen at a bar. Wood’s solution was to sell liquor from a small, unobtrusive building with a window staffed by an attendant. Transactions were brief, allowing customers to retreat to their homes, reputations intact. Today, two Copper Still locations remain in operation in Hopkinsville.
By the end of the 1950s, these convenient beer and liquor stores—variously known as beer barns or brew-thrus—were popping up in select states in the Midwest and South. A more literal approach to the term “drive-thru,” these businesses required customers to actually drive through the building, where they were assisted by an employee without ever exiting their vehicle.
Arizona, in particular, became an epicenter of drive-thru liquor stores, especially in the Phoenix metro area. (The Phoenix New Times even published a 2017 “field guide” to 50 of the region’s best.) One of the more iconic examples is Melrose Liquors, which opened in an aqua and Pepto-Bismol pink Googie structure in 1957; in 2017 it was slated for demolition, which was ultimately put on hold due to public outcry. “Phoenix underwent rapid physical growth in the post–World War II era, leading to a strong automobile culture,” says Helana Ruter, acting historic preservation officer for the city. “Unlike corporate fast-food chain drive-thrus,” she adds, “the independent-ownership model of midcentury drive-thru liquor stores encouraged kitschy roadside architecture to attract commuters.”
But antiquated liquor laws, coupled with zoning changes and growing competition from online retailers, are threatening the future of the nation’s drive-thru liquor stores. “A lot of these laws just don’t make sense,” says Robert Ellis, co-owner of Austin’s Party Barn, noting that Texas’ ban on Sunday liquor sales hurts business. “Restaurants and bars serve alcohol to customers knowing there’s a good probability driving home will be involved, which is a greater risk than a closed-container beer sale.”
Adds Philip Foreman, second-generation owner of North Carolina’s Brew Thru chain: “We’re not encouraging drunk driving; we’re offering a service. We have an off-premise license and our business is just a convenient way to get your beer.” As a point of pride, the chain employs “cartenders” responsible for checking IDs before any purchase. “One of our guys nabbed 23 fake IDs in a single day,” recalls Foreman.
Despite the challenges, these drive-thru liquor stores remain, in part, by prompting nostalgia in their present owners. In fact, Ellis had no intention of operating Party Barn. But as a student at the adjacent University of Texas, he was a regular customer, often cruising through to pick up ice and six-packs. In March 2020, after Party Barn closed as a result of the pandemic, Ellis and his business partner Meador Hall jumped at the opportunity to purchase the store, reopening it just two months later. “The city’s changed so much; there’s not much left here that’s original,” says Ellis, who notes that Austin implemented new zoning requirements that make opening another drive-thru beer barn unlikely. “We wanted to bring back an ‘old-timey’ way of doing business, built on great customer service, which we pride ourselves on.”
Seventy miles north of Austin, Lampasas Beer Barn has been supplying locals with Coors Light since 1986. Current owner Deanna Juarez, who grew up in the town of nearly 8,000, bought the business from its second owners in 2019. “I had to do it,” she says. “My memories of the Barn are vivid, even the times when my high school friend and I would get older patrons to buy us Matilda Bay wine coolers,” she recalls. “Those nights usually ended with one of us hugging the toilet, but this is still the only place in town where you can literally drive your car through a barn and be waited on.”
The original Beer Barn had two lanes, but Juarez closed one to expand storage for her inventory. She also built a separate liquor store on the property that will soon have its own drive-in window. “I understand why metropolitan areas may limit or deny permits for drive-thru beverage retailers, but rural areas like this have historically had a need for them,” she says, noting that when Lampasas Beer Barn opened, nearby chain stores weren’t permitted to sell alcohol.
Other beer barns, like Brew Thru, which now has five locations throughout the Outer Banks, cater to the needs of seasonal tourists. The family-owned and -operated chain known as the “original drive-thru beverage store” was started by Dana and Rebecca Lawrentz in Nags Head in 1977. After a summer of steady business, the couple quickly realized they needed a plan to sustain their family during the off-season.
“Winter is brutal,” says Foreman, the Lawrentz’s son-in-law. (He and now-wife Brandy, Dana and Rebecca’s daughter, began working at Brew Thru as teens and bought the business when Dana retired in 2002.) Merchandise became the solution to survival; to date, Brew Thru has sold more than $6 million in T-shirts, leading the Foremans to open a dedicated retail shop. Still, only two stores remain open year-round; the rest shutter from late November until the week before Easter.
In high season, Foreman says Brew Thru offers just about everything needed for a day at the beach, from local craft beers, wine, soda, ice, snacks and sunglasses to cigars from the humidor. Even COVID-19 didn’t put a damper on sales, according to Foreman. “We’re kind of built for a situation where people are afraid to get out of their cars,” he says.
Like trips to Brew Thru, visiting Lampasas Beer Barn is more of an excursion than a chore. “You come here, place your order, we fill your cooler and chitty-chat for a while if there’s no line,” says Juarez. “It’s not your typical hangout, but our customers are like family. We learn their names and preferences, and they bring us produce from their gardens and homemade salsa, and eggs from their chickens.”
Despite the challenges, Juarez sees value in maintaining the drive-thru—if only as a cultural relic. “Beer barns are worth preserving because they’re such a part of Texas culture,” she says. “I don’t know how they got started, but whoever came up with the idea is a genius.”