If you’re filling up at the Shell station on the corner of Arroyo Parkway and Del Mar Boulevard, make sure to stop inside to pick up the gas station convenience store staples: some lotto tickets, a bag of chips and, oh, a hazy double IPA, a pastry sour and a rice lager.
Pasadena has its share of gastropubs, taprooms, big-box liquor stores and a couple of small bottle shops, but the food mart at Arroyo Shell has them all cornered when it comes to the curation of chilled cans and bottles of beer.
The cans go up for sale as soon as they come in, and owner Shibli Haddad resets the fridges multiple times a week. There’s always something fresh to keep repeat customers interested (he’ll tease new releases on the shop’s Instagram), but there’s a balance between flavor-of-the-month brews and reliable lagers, pilsners, IPAs and Kölsch. Anaheim’s Bottle Logic is the only steady fixture, though 903 and the Brewing Projekt are often in stock, as are some local entries like San Gabriel’s Ogopogo and Glendale’s Paperback. It’s all wrapped up in a setting that, yes, is still unmistakably a gas station convenience store, but one with artist-commissioned murals, a chalk wall that might have surprised Pikachu one month and parched SpongeBob the next, and a feel-good playlist that jumps from Frank Sinatra to the Strokes.
As you might expect, it wasn’t always like this. Haddad’s father owned the station until his death in 1998, when the family lost the business and went on a lease. Once that lease was up in 2016, Haddad, who’d been working as an accountant, decided to take over the station.
His sister first suggested bringing in craft beer, but Haddad wasn’t personally interested in microbrews at the time. He was living across the street from the station and right next Stone Brewing’s Pasadena taproom, though, so he started spending time there and asking about beer distribution. The next thing he knew, he had a single door of the gas station’s refrigerators stocked with six packs of craft beer. But it wasn’t a particularly polished spread.
“I had very minimal knowledge, and you could tell that by the selection back in 2016,” he says. “I didn’t have a wide enough variety. It was becoming nothing but IPAs in here. Also, no one wants to invest like 20 bucks in a six pack and then they try it and don’t like it, and they’ve got five more bottles of it.”
So Haddad starting talking to customers and frequenting online beer review sites to mix up his offerings. He got rid of the shelves of room temperature six packs and made sure everything was chilled in a fridge instead (“People come to a gas station for convenience, they don’t want to get product that they have to refrigerate,” he says). He bought more cooler units, split up packs into singles and put individual price tags and labels on everything.
Now, you’ll find a row of a half-dozen frosty glass doors mostly filled with colorful microbrews, but also cases of Modelo and tall boys of Bud Light next to cans of nitro hard tea, smoothie seltzers and coffee-flavored hard kombucha. There’s another pair of double-door fridges with even more beer, canned sangria and bottles of bubbly, with a shelf of red wine next to them. Just about everything is available by the can, and you can pick up four and six-pack plastic holders to mix and match.
The beer is methodically arranged: Paper tabs attached to brews of Bottle Logic’s Fundamental Observation note for how long they’ve been aged. In the two leftmost fridges, every bottle and can sits atop a handwritten label (the ones in orange are Haddad’s recommendations) that lets you know whether you’re looking at a Kölsch or a sour or a DDH WC IPA. There’s a key for common beer abbreviations, too, so you’ll know that last one, in this case Humble Sea’s Nicktoons-inspired Hey Gnarnold!, is a double dry hopped West Coast India pale ale.
Haddad handles all of the sourcing himself, though he routinely turns to customers for recommendations. “It breaks the mundaneness of running a gas station,” he says. “I personally just enjoy talking to people in the craft beer community.” That’s how he ended up with something like Hey Gnarnold! on his shelf. For the bulk of the rest, he sticks to highly-rated brews on beer-focused sites like Untappd. “I don’t want to bring in beers that may not be super well-received because I don’t like wasting the limited space on them,” he says. “I have people fighting for space, I’m not trying to fill space up.” But there’s always a little bit of room for the occasional social media discovery, like Artisanal Brew Works’ Warheads (yes, the candy) sour ale (“I don’t know how good it is, but that looks interesting,” Haddad thought when he first came upon that one).
If you’re wondering why Haddad hasn’t opened a dedicated bottle shop or tasting room yet, well, he’s thought about it—but rent is expensive in Pasadena and this is space he already has. He says his customers also like the convenience of his current setup, though that certainly became more complicated when stay-at-home orders meant fewer motorists were filling up on gas. Haddad actually took that opportunity to dedicate even more of his time to the beer side of the businesses, and it’s paid off: Sales grew significantly over the past year, and when the minimum wage for small businesses in Pasadena hit $15 an hour in July, Haddad raised the starting rate to $16.50 an hour and included a week of paid time off. “The more successful this is, it just goes right back to my employees,” he says.
You’ll find Arroyo Shell at 290 South Arroyo Parkway. The convenience store is open daily 6am to 10pm.