Trouble's Brewin'

"I knew those kids were trouble the minute they came through that door, the little bastards," fumes the veteran 7-Eleven clerk we'll call Midge. "You work in these places long enough, you learn to sense it. Or at least I can." Never having worked in a junk-food fortress, I lacked Midge's keen instinct for detecting impending convenience-market disaster. Still, on that fateful night a couple weeks ago, even I sensed that something was awry as the salty middle-aged clerk rang up my purchase at the west Phoenix 7-Eleven that is my home away from home.

The normally chatty Midge suddenly broke off the small talk in midsentence when three long-haired, shirtless teens swaggered into the store. "Post-Manson paranoia," I thought to myself as I watched Midge revert to automatic pilot. She silently counted out my change as she riveted her gaze upon the trio traipsing toward the back of the store.

Vaguely troubled by Midge's abrupt change in demeanor, I left the store. But as I opened the door to my car, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I'd actually managed to escape Midge's cash register without receiving the obligatory lottery-ticket pitch!

I gulped big. Something was wrong here--seriously, terribly, sickeningly wrong. But what?

Crash! I turned around just in time to see the storefront doors fly open, unleashing a cacophony of chaos that looked like a fast-forward Mod Squad finale. In a blur, the high-school hellions tore out of the store. Two of them immediately vanished around the side of the building, while the third, whooping wildly, dashed across six lanes of traffic before disappearing behind a Taco Bell.

I did what any law-abiding citizen in my position probably would have done: Nothing. I stared numbly into the store, desperately hoping to see some sign of life behind the Big Gulp banners.

After an eternity (well, several seconds at least), Midge, apparently unharmed, charged out of the store in lukewarm pursuit. Realizing the culprits' trail was already cold, she simply stood out on the sidewalk and did a slow burn.

Midge had sensed trouble brewing, all right: "beer run" trouble. Part crime, part sport, the name of this game is grab-the-six-pack-and-run.

Because some 7-Eleven stores are independently owned franchises, the chain can't accurately tabulate beer rip-offs or the number of prosecutions resulting from same. Still, reports Jim Toth, the stores' loss-prevention manager, "I know that it's occurring and I know that it's frequent." He claims the problem is escalating, and the robbers are starting to rub it in.

"Some of these thieves are so brazen that they're actually greeting the salesperson," says Toth. "They'll come in, smile and say, `I'm here for my nightly beer.'"

What's a clerk to do? Save for calling the cops (by which time most suds-snatchers are long gone), not much. "We discourage our salespeople from pursuing or resisting," admits Toth. "For one thing, we don't want them leaving the store unattended. Then, of course, we don't want them chasing people into the street not knowing what they'll be confronted with." (The Circle K chain couldn't find anyone to discuss this problem with New Times.) "Our advice to salespeople," says 7-Eleven's Toth, "is call the police immediately, giving as much description as possible regarding the suspect, the vehicle and the direction of travel." He confesses, however, that this is something easier said than done: Apparently realizing that a license-plate number can be traced, many brew-heisters flee on foot, possibly escaping in an out-of-sight getaway car.

Although most beer-runners seem to be underage males too young to legally purchase the stuff, Toth claims his chain has also been plagued by older drinkers anxious to score an illegal brewski after last call. Attempts to thwart after-hours thefts by locking beer coolers have not been entirely successful. Some lager-lifters reach through adjacent cooler doors, while others simply snatch warm beer from floor displays.

Did this summer's record heat help cause the recent rash of beer-runs? Toth doesn't think so. "It's not a seasonal thing," says the loss-prevention leader. "In fact, there doesn't seem to be any pattern here at all except that it's happening a lot more than it used to."

He theorizes that the breweries may have inadvertently contributed to the problem with their innovative "convenience" packaging. "Now they can steal more beer more quickly," he says, laughing and pointing a speculative finger at "suitcase beer"--24-packs with "handy" carrying grips.