Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Beer in Supermarkets: the Down Side

Giant Market plans to sell beer at their Stone Mill Plaza store in Lancaster County!

Weis Market opens beer cafe in Mechanicsburg!

Yeah, really, beer in Da Grocery Store in Da Commonwealth!!!!
Is this great? Or is it pathetic?

I asked that question seven years ago, when I first bought a beer at a Pennsylvania supermarket. It's high time that the question was asked again, because things are accelerating. We're seeing more and more big supermarkets adding "beer cafes" and selling sixpacks, and there are going to be consequences; we need to look ahead at what may happen and consider action to head it off.

It's a simple problem. It's great that Pennsylvania supermarkets have figured out a way to sell beer, a workaround that involves sacrificing part of their building to create a "cafe" where people could have a beer if they really wanted to (but mostly don't, with a few cool exceptions where the idea's been embraced) and buying a tavern license, which can be wicked expensive (check by county; hello, Chester!). But clearly the big chain supermarkets -- Giant, Wegmans, Weis, Whole Foods, Giant Eagle -- have found that the profit is worth the cost, because it seems like a month doesn't go by without another opening.

Why is that a problem? A few things. First, Pennsylvania has a "quota system" for liquor licenses: one per 3,000 people in a county. It's essentially a broken system, as it's never really kept up with population shifts, and there are a ton of "grandfathered" licenses in counties that have lost population, and there are a number of exceptions (The Almighty Liquor Code has a silly number of kinds of licenses), but essentially, there are no new tavern licenses being issued. If you want a liquor license, you have to buy one on the open market, because the Legislature foolishly made them transferable and salable. I say "foolishly" because when a liquor license -- a piece of paper issued by the State with no intrinsic value except what the State-enforced "quota system" has given it -- is sold in Chester County, for instance, for $270,000, the State gets next to nothing. Even though the full value of that license only exists because of State law. Yeah, I call that foolish.

That's a problem, because every time a supermarket simply wants to sell beer, it buys up another of these limited licenses, which then become more scarce, and therefore more expensive if you want to buy one to open an actual bar, tavern, brewpub (you need a license to sell anything other than your own beer or Pennsylvania wines at a brewpub), or restaurant. As licenses get more expensive, you get more chain restaurants and fewer independent operators opening (because they don't have the deep pockets); you get more nuisance bars (because they have to sell more booze to make their loan payment), and you get more high-end places with expensive booze (which isn't bad in and of itself, but if the ratio is unbalanced, people have fewer choices).

Another part of the problem is that it creates two tiers of grocery stores: the ones with beer and the ones without. I recognize that some grocery stores don't want to sell beer; especially in rural Pennsylvania, where there are some family-owned places that simply don't hold with alcohol at all. Fine, no reason to force stores to sell beer, but there are stores that would like to and simply can't afford the ridiculous unnecessary expense of buying a tavern license and tying up a substantial amount of retail space and equipment in a "cafe" with separate beer cashiers.

This was brought up at the McIlhinney Hearings in 2013, by a representative from Redner's Warehouse Markets, and Senator McIlhinney's response was essentially 'that's nice, but that ain't gonna happen.' Since then, there have been attempts to come up with a separate license for grocery store sales (of course, another type of license is exactly what we need!), none of which went anywhere. Given the tenacious opposition of the beer distributors to any expansion of grocery store beer sales (and the likely opposition of the already-licensed groceries), I doubt this will fly, and...

That is going to mean we'll have this half-assed workaround forever. The stores that got a liquor license won't be happy with anything that devalues that major investment, so they'll be fighting it. And Pennsylvanians are pathetically grateful for anything that even looks like buying beer in grocery stores (and having a liquor license actually puts the stores one tiny step away from selling wine, as there's already been a push to allow taverns to sell "to-go" bottles of wine), so if we think we have it, we're not going to push for it; we're just going to go to the stores that sell beer. That means that more and more supermarkets are going to go after tavern licenses, which is going to accelerate the scarcity issue (more chains and more nuisance bars!), and put even more pressure on the family-owned supermarkets to sell or close.

Well, hello, unintended consequences!

More crappy nuisance bars. Friendly neighborhood bars will sell their licenses at top dollar while they can, and the families will retire. And we get further away from a REAL solution to the problem.

This is yet another fine mess the PLCB and the Legislature have gotten us into, with the help of the MBDA and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of Bucks County beer mogul (and SEPTA Board and Turnpike Commission member; and did you know he also owns 4% of the Sands Casino?) Pat Deon. Please note that I do NOT blame the supermarkets; they're just playing the hand that was dealt to them, and playing it well.

The only solution to Pennsylvania's alcohol beverage sales quagmire is going to be an all-alcohol solution, some grand bargain that fixes everything. More on that to come.

1 comment:

Albert Brooks said...

Just an FYI, the silly number for kinds of licenses in PA is 67.