Café delay

By on February 4, 2015

Beer sales stalled at Weis as beer distributors association cites law that prohibits the sale of beer and gasoline on same site

by PATRICK BURNS

An outside  view of Weis's Beer cafe. (Photo by Patrick Burns)

An outside view of Weis’s Beer cafe. (Photo by Patrick Burns)

Ephrata Borough’s approval in August of a liquor-license transfer seemingly paved the way for Weis to become the first supermarket in the area to sell pickles, pilsners and petrol.

But it’s that last item, gasoline sales, that has stalled the start of beer sales in Weis’s new 2,300-square-foot Beer Cafe inside its 331 N. Reading Road store.

In Pennsylvania, gasoline and beer sales are not to be mixed, says the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania.

The MBDA, which represents the interests of 420 distributors in the state, filed a petition in September with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board arguing liquor laws prohibit LCB licenses “to a location that sells liquid fuels, such as gasoline.”

The Beer Cafe at Weis's Lititz store

The Beer Cafe at Weis’s Lititz store

The petition filed by MBDA, whose attorney Charles Caputo will argue before a PLCB board on Feb. 11, states that local beer distributors will be “directly aggrieved” if Weis’s license is approved.

Paper beer cartons substitute for the real thing at Weis Beer cafe

Paper beer cartons substitute for the real thing at Weis Beer cafe

MBDA’s argument is the same Caputo made against a Sheetz convenience store in Shippensburg at around the same time Ephrata Borough approved Weis’s request to open its Beer Café.

The Sheetz store in Shippensburg had its beer sales halted for more than two months between August and October while a judge decided whether the LCB had erred in granting the license to Sheetz on July 17.

Caputo, who represented a different client in the Shippensburg’s case, lost his argument when a Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas judge ruled in October that Sheetz followed LCB rules when applying for its restaurant license because it created two separate entities in the store — a convenience store and a restaurant.

Calls to MBDA and Caputo were not immediately returned Tuesday to The Ephrata Review. A Weis spokesman said the company would comment following the Feb. 11 hearing.

Weis became the first retailer in the county to sell beer when its Beer Café opened at its Lititz supermarket on March 6. That store and the Wyomissing Weis Beer Café opened in 2013 do not sell gas.

The beer section at the Lititz Weis has expanded from 300 to 800 beers, Weis said Tuesday.

The beer section at the Lititz Weis has expanded from 300 to 800 beers, Weis said Tuesday.

However, all of the Weis Beer Cafés, including the ones in Ephrata and Lititz, have a separate entrance and separate cash registers from the main section of the supermarket, as state regulations require.

The separate entrance to the Beer Cafe at Weis.

The separate entrance to the Beer Cafe at Weis.

All of the beer cafés — which seat about 30 and serve foods like rotisserie chicken, pizza and subs —allow patrons to drink a maximum of two beers on site and purchase no more than two 6-packs of beer to go.

Replies on social media Tuesday derided the MBDA’s petition as an attempt to stifle competition and protect the beer distributors’ monopoly on bulk beer sales (cases and kegs).

The Ephrata Review’s Facebook page Tuesday on Weis reached nearly 5,900 people and generated more than 80 comments.

“Will McDonald’s petition when Taco Bell goes up?” Cindee Watts responded sarcastically.

Deb Shaver noted that both Weis and the beer distributors can coexist and prosper.

“People would still go to the distributors to get cases of beer,” Shaver wrote. “Weis offers different flavors and build your own 6-pack, so people who don’t normally like beer can try different flavors without buying whole cases. Let them open, if you treat your regulars right they will continue to come to you!”

While the MBDA hinges its petition on Weis’s sale of gasoline and beer from the same site, it argues “highly regulated and interconnected” state liquor laws created a “market niche” and that restrictions on one class affect “the functioning of the entire system.”

For instance, Weis’s hours of operation are beyond the legal limit of distributors and Weis’s ability to sell gasoline gives it an unfair advantage because distributors are precluded from selling much else besides beer, the petition noted.

“Catastrophic consequences” to local beer distributors would occur by approving Weis’s restaurant-liquor license since beer distributors cannot effectively compete within the way current state liquor laws are crafted, according to MBDA.

Local beer distributors did not want to talk on record. They’re concerned about how alterations to state liquor laws can affect the value and the stake they have in their investment.

Melissa Plowmaker Carrasco offered some sympathy for beer distributor owners whom she says are also forced to deal with restrictive state laws that limit their sales options.

“The law does not allow the beer distributors to break down cases and sell as a 6-pack,” Plowmaker noted on Facebook. “ (It’s) not their choice to force people to buy cases. Why should Weis be allowed to sell it in a manner the existing distributors cannot match?”

The MBDA petition further states that Weis’s license, allowing customers to drink beer and eat food on its premises expands “the character of (a) retail dispenser.”

This could affect other state-licensed and regulated business such as hotels, restaurants, clubs and others “that cannot offer retail sales of alcohol to the public for off-premises consumption.”

Patrick Burns is a staff writer for The Ephrata Review. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at pburns.eph@lnpnews.com or at 721-4455¶

 

 

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