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“Free my beer!”
Former borough councilman George DiIlio’s closing remarks brought laughter to the standing room only crowd present for Monday night’s hearing regarding the inter-municipal transfer of a liquor license from Columbia to the Ephrata Weis Store.
DiIlio was among those in the crowd to support the transfer, although not everyone was a keen on the idea.
Attorney Mark Kozar from the law firm of Flaherty and O’Hara represents Weis in the matter and was on hand to present his testimony to council. According to Kozar, Weis’ efforts to secure a liquor license is part of a storewide renovation, with plans to add a 32-seat beer café to the front left corner of the supermarket. He likened the new café to what the company has already successfully done at the Lititz store. The new café would be separated from the rest of the store and have its own outside entrance.
“Weis is asking for nothing new or unusual,” said Kozar. “We have too much to lose than to serve alcohol in a half-hearted manner.”
Weis Markets is a publicly traded company based in Sunbury. It has 164 stores in five states and employs 120 at the Ephrata store. Kozar explained to council that the company holds very high standards for honesty and integrity and that the company intentionally plays an active role in the community, supporting local farmers, food banks and recycling efforts.
“The plan is to serve a wide variety of prepared foods, including rotisserie chicken, entrees, made-to-order subs, soups and a salad bar,” added Kozar.
Kozar said that by design the new café was not the kind of place where people would want to come and hang out, drinking beer. And he detailed the strict corporate policy regarding alcohol. The café would have a specially trained and designated manager. All café employees would likewise be specially trained to assure compliance with the 100 percent card policy. Patrons would be limited to a two-beer limit on premises. Further, take-out customers would be limited to 192 ounces, which amounts to two six-packs and two 16-ounce containers. The area would be under constant video surveillance with the manager also monitoring the area at all times.
“This would be a place to dine and have a drink,” said Kozar. “This represents a significant investment by a well-invested employer.”
The café would likely be open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Justin Townsley was one of the first to voice opposition to the license transfer. He is the full-time manager at the Ephrata Beverage Mart at the corner of Dawn Avenue and Route 272. Speaking for the owner, who was unable to attend the meeting, he was concerned about the impact the move would have on their sales.
“We feel like this coming into town will definitely take away from our business,” Townsley emphasized. “The owner has invested all of his own money in this business. I support my family of four on that. I’m afraid this puts my job at risk and this could just be the beginning. If this gets approved, then Sheetz and Giant and everyone is going to want to get a license. We are a small, hometown owned and operated employer that offers a decent wage. We are concerned it will lead to far more problems and places where minors can get alcohol.”
Townsley stressed that his store is an adults only location that does not allow minors to enter the store, where they only sell cigarettes and alcohol.
For his part, Kozar said that in his experience, alcohol sales in supermarkets actually helps distributor sales more than it hurts. Of the 210 groceries in the state with an alcohol license, his firm has represented 205 of those.
“Someone wants to buy a craft beer, they buy a six pack at Weis,” explained Kozar. “If they like it, they then go to the distributor for a case of it. It is pure economics. It is more cost effective to buy the case at the distributor.”
Local resident Wendy Heines also expressed concerns about the impact it would have on the local culture. She expressed a view that Ephrata already has a drug and alcohol problem and that allowing beer to be sold at Weis would only increase that problem.
“We have to leave a legacy,” said Heines. “We need to support the police and make their job easier. What are we going to turn Ephrata into if we don’t’ help the kids, teens and adults with alcohol problems. As a nurse I can also say we have a drug and alcohol problem in our town. “
Mayor Ralph Mowen challenged that assertion, saying that Ephrata was no different than any other town this size with regard to drugs and alcohol. He gave Mrs. Heines his business card and promised to follow up with her so that she could learn of the many efforts his administration has made to combat drug and alcohol use in the borough.
While some were opposed to the transfer, others in addition to DiIlio were fully supportive of it.
Erica Mowen said she was in favor of the move.
“I don’t want to have to go to a bar and get groped for a six-pack,” said Mowen. “If I want more, then I can get that at (the distributor). But just for a six pack to kick back and relax, my friends in Lititz can go to Weis. It comes down to a 50/50 split, where we buy our beer for a few days at Weis and go to the distributor for more.”
Another point of view was put forward by Tina Thompson who pointed to the convenience factor. She added that she did not feel allowing Weis to sell beer would have an adverse impact on the borough.
“Personally, if I go to Weis and I try and like something, I’ll go to the distributor to find it,” said Thompson. “It will not tear down this town. This won’t do it.”
In another lighter moment of the evening, regular borough council meeting attendee Virginia Gregson shared her own personal experience buying beer at Weis.
“I’ve visited Weis stores that sell beer at least two times and both times I had to show my drivers license,” said Gregson. “And look how old I am. I was very impressed how it was handled. As a woman, I don’t want to go into a bar and I don’t want a case at a time.”
In the end a roll call vote approved of the resolution with council member Melvin Weiler being the sole “no” vote.
For additional information on Ephrata Borough, visit ephrataboro.org.
Gary P. Klinger is a correspondent for The Ephrata Review. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.