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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Uh. Sell Beer. Joe and Jane Sixpack. Uh. Beer.

Beer gets Op-Ed attention in the Inquirer today; the Sheetz case goes to the State Supreme Court tomorrow. The editorial gets the general idea right, which is good: Pennsylvanians should be able to buy beer in six-packs, like everyone else in the United States. As the Inky says, "Beer must be purchased mostly by the case. Six-packs are available at bars and restaurants - at sky-high prices. The system is tailor-made to restrict competition and choice, and to artificially inflate prices."

So far, so good, although the average reader could easily infer that this "system" was put in place by the taverns and beer distributors, rather than put in place by the State and enforced by its booze law goon squad, the PLCB. But they miss the point. The Sheetz case is not about selling beer at a convenience store; if they win their case -- and they should -- it will not mean that every WaWa will be selling sixers of Coors Light. It's both more and less complicated than that.

What Sheetz wants is to be able to use the license they bought for their big Altoona store, a store that, like many in the chain, is so big that they've included a seating area for their large food menu. Other delis/pizza joints have the same thing, and there's no problem. That's the less-complicated part.

The more complicated part is mostly, pardon me, bullshit. The rub with Sheetz, supposedly, is that the company doesn't want to allow on-premises consumption of the beer; you can't drink it there, you have to get it to go. This is what has brought the case to the courts: a company policy that most Pennsylvanians could care less about if it means they can buy a sixer of Bud Light at a convenience store (Didja see that word? Convenience. Something the PLCB oughta look into).

What's it really about? Well, the Inky bellows about "surly beer sellers who now maintain a monopoly." Get it right: the beer sellers are surly because either the State won't let them sell six-packs (the distributors), or because the State set up rules that led them to base their business model on a monopoly on selling six-packs (the tavern owners).

The taverns are going to have to roll over on this. Places like The Sixpack Store, Suds, Quick Six, and The Foodery have built a business around giving us what we want: sixpacks to go, a good selection, in and out. They see a heavily bankrolled chain moving into their business, they're probably going to fight it. But when the dust settles, it's going to be the same scene, just more competitive. There are only so many licenses; business will go to the stores that best serve the variety of consumer needs.

But the beer distributors are the ones getting screwed, and we're getting it right along with them. They've got the expertise, the selection, the space, the cold rooms...let them sell sixpacks. Please! If you're going to level the playing field, level the whole thing.

Some of you will probably think I'm being too hard on the Inquirer. They are calling for sixpacks for the citizens, after all. But this is a complicated issue that goes to the heart of the problems with the PLCB: interpretation of arcane, archaic laws that would be better off being completely replaced, rather than tinkered with. If I'm dealing with a 'major daily,' I expect the full story.


Anonymous said...

As goes Sheetz, so goes Wegmans. Our Wegmans here in State College has installed the six pack coolers and has already provided each potential provider (beer distributors and the local brewery) with an escrow fund to cover the need for beer purchases to be paid for on delivery.

How confident are they of the Sheetz outcome?

Anonymous said...

Too hard on the Inquirer?!? No way, Lew you are spot-on honest. I think there are more passionate beer lovers in Pennsylvania than the media and MADD and the politicians think. They will come out of the woodwork after they find out the results of the vote will benefit them and their shopping amount.

The beer sellers, all types, who truly are passionate about beer will survive because inherently they've already built up a loyal customer base.

my two cents :)

Scoats said...

1) Many D's probably like things as they are. Remodeling to sell sixpack would be a sizable investment for them. Cases are sold at room temp on the floor. 6packs tend to be sold in reach in coolers with glass doors. They could potentially be selling less beer at higher expense.

2) State College Wegmans is probably similar to the Wegmans that already has a PA liquor license. They have a restaurant with seating, a payment area separated from the rest of the store, and allow on-premise consumption. If Sheetz allowed on-premise consumption, they would be in compliance with the law, just like Wegmans.

Anonymous said...


Where is the Wegmans you mention? Ours, too, has a license, it just isn't on line yet. I'm surprised (pleased!) to hear that they're serving on premise!

Lew Bryson said...


No doubt there are Ds who would be very happy to have things remain the way they are. There were, after all, plenty of Ds who would have been happy to remain closed on Sundays. There were probably State Store employees who would have been happy to be open 10-6, and only offer counter service, and not have an expanded selection of wines and spirits. But the system doesn't operate for their benefit. Things change. If enough citizens -- voters -- want a change, it will happen.

On your other point, about Wegman's vs. Sheetz on serving on-premise... Is on-premises consumption clearly required by the Liquor Code? Or is it more ambiguous?

After all, if you follow that line of reasoning, you could argue that anyone with a tavern or deli license could be required to sell for off-premise consumption, not so? After all, the law allows it; why are they not required to do it? Because as you and I know, there are plenty of restaurants that do not, and do not care to. Where's the difference?

Scoats said...

1) It could be fairly argued either way what the spirit of the law is. Personally I believe the law expects places that sell take out to be an on-premise restaurant (either full service or deli) that also sells take out beer.

The hypocrisy of Sheetz is what really annoys me. One could speculate what sort of licensee an applicant could be that finds it acceptable unleash on the community what they won't accept under their own roof.

The solution is easy let people drink a can of Bud with their fast food sandwich.

2) Since I don't live near a Wegmans, I didn't note which got approval. I'm sure it's easily googled.

3) Both of the above trends favor giant operations surrounded by large surface parking lots. Not good for mom and pop stores. Not really great for selection or convenience.

4) From what little I have seen when out of state, states that have easy access to six-pack beer have two categories of beer for licensing purposes. Gas stations, super markets, convenience stores, and pizza shops tend to only be allowed to sell lower alcohol (under 3.5% maybe) beer.

Maybe it is time for another class of liquor license in PA. But casino tax revenue would have to plateau before that would be considered.

Lew Bryson said...

(Rubs hands, prepares for a lengthy discussion)

Let's go point by point.

1. I think the "spirit" of the law is that the State didn't want stores -- grocery stores, drugstores, gas stations, what have you -- selling sixpacks. We the people do want that, and Sheetz/Wegman's are finding a way to get us that. We are, after all, talking about retail sale of a legal product: I'd say will of the people trumps the spirit of an out-of-date, out-of-touch law.

As far as Sheetz 'unleashing' anything on the community...are you implying that letting a convenience store sell sixpacks to go is going to "unleash" anything untoward on a community? Could you be more specific as to why that would be more dangerous or undesirable than a tavern or deli selling sixpacks to go while letting people have a can of Bud with their sandwich? That's really the essence here: what's the difference, what's the big deal?

2. I don't know either.

3. The state's whole licensing system at this point favors big operations; it needs fixing, badly. But Sheetz/Wegman's as big boxes surrounded by parking lots already exist; I don't see this creating more of them. More competition for mom-and-pop? Yes, definitely. Just about any change to the state Liquor Code is going to involve more competition for mom-and-pop...just like in every other segment of the retail economy. Until people change their desire for bland, cheap, bountiful uniformity of experience, that's what we're stuck with. And maybe what we deserve. It's a much bigger issue than this.

4. States with the two-tier beer option are relatively few. Around here, for instance, New York doesn't have it, nor does Maryland, Delaware, or New Jersey (which doesn't have 'easy' access to beer).

I think the whole licensing system needs to be overhauled in a major way...but what are the chances that's going to happen without lawsuits tying it up for years? The licensing system is outdated and arcane, but owners have millions tied up in it. It won't change easily. I'd love to see more licenses, for less money, and I'd be happy to see them as limited licenses...but it won't happen. Tavern owners won't be for it, chains won't be for it, anti-alcohol groups won't be for it, community groups will probably be against it. We're stuck, I think.

mr12ozcan said...

in new york they sell beer everywhere and bad bars still stay in business makes it seem like the bars and beverages want it all in pa

Anonymous said...

Scoats and Lew....there was a link to a piece of journalism regarding this decision somewhere, but I can't remember which site or blog I clicked on it from. I remember the article stated none of the surrounding counties of Philadelphia in which Wegmans are...Chester, Montgomery, Bucks, etc. They were all in Pennsyltucky parts of the state...the closest one may be in Lehigh Valley [which is not really Pennsyltucky to the fullest extent] or somewhere near Stockertown.

Lew Bryson said...

All right, all right, let's ease up on the "Pennsyltucky" shit: Your Devoted Servant here is from "that part" of the state, and will only tolerate so much of this kind of talk...

The American Don said...

You guys need to count your lucky stars. I've been living in the Bible belt most of my adult life, and out here we can only get beer at about 5-6% ABV and UNDER. I now live in Texas which has some sense, but they are still trying to get that law changed in Mississippi, and Georgia just got on board a couple years ago. It is a mystery why you have to buy beer by the case as opposed to the six pack.

The question is if you can buy beer at the Gas Station as single cans/bottles. Out here, each gas station has single tall cans of Bud, Miller, and whatnot on Ice, which will not lead to Drinking and Driving, but whatever.

Anonymous said...

Ok Im a distributor and you kow what im fine with Sheetz selling six packs. But the issues I have are that number 1 I cant sell six packs, my six pack prices would kill Sheetz prices. Number 2 I can only own one beer distributorship, Sheetz can have as many as they want. And 3 let me sell eggs bread cheese etc in my store too, right now I can sell beer, soda, and small snacks. Lets level the playing field and see how sheetz & wegmans stacks up.