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Wegmans moves closer to beer sales

January 21, 2008

If Wegmans Food Market gets its way, before long its Downingtown store will be selling beer, over the objection of beer distributors.

On Jan. 10, Wegmans applied to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board for a restaurant license that would allow it to sell up to two six packs of beer and serve beer by the glass with meals to adults eating in its café.

Francesca Chapman, deputy press secretary of the PLCB, said Wegmans must be inspected by the state before the application can be approved. And there must be a permanent 4-foot high wall separating the licensed and unlicensed parts of the store.

“Nothing is going to happen too quickly,” Chapman said.

 Edward J. Dymek, a township supervisor, said that legally the municipality must conduct a public hearing regarding the application, which it has done.

“No one came,” Dymek said.

Barbara Kelly, township manager, noted that the few individuals who did show up for the meeting were local beer distributors concerned about competition from Wegmans.

David Shipula of Wilkes-Barre, president of the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania, said the supermarket is “masquerading as a restaurant.”

The supermarket is using an existing restaurant license, in this case one from Nottingham, and transforming itself into a beverage distributorship, said Shipula, who owns Beer Super in Wilkes-Barre, not far from a Wegmans that has also applied to the PLCB.

As a beer distributor, Shipula said he is limited to what he can sell: beer, soda and snacks but not milk or other groceries. “No inducements,” he said.

Shipula said he has seen Wegmans’ plans for its Wilkes-Barre store that call for eight glass-door refrigerator cases.

“That’s not a restaurant,” Shipula said. “That’s the same as what I have. That puts us at a disadvantage and we’ve fol

lowed the rules for years.”

The township can accept or reject the application but reasons to reject it are extremely restricted, said Dymek, who was the township supervisors’ chairman in 2007. There has to be a grave concern.

Arguments that children will see beer consumption or that beer sales is not something residents want are not valid reasons to reject the application, Dymek said. The township has no recourse but to approve the application unless the applicant is involved in illegal activities, he added.

Dymek promised the township and its police will monitor the beer sales to make sure there is no drinking to excess, no vulgarity and that other shoppers are not being harassed.

Dymek said he does not anticipate a problem, noting that Wegmans is a “big operation and concerned with its image.”

In addition to East Caln and Wilkes-Barre, Wegmans has applied for restaurant licenses for its stores in Easton, Bethlehem, State College, Williamsport, Scranton and Erie, according to the PLCB. No application has been filed for Wegmans’ planned store at Uptown Worthington in East Whiteland.

David DeMascole, Wegmans’ regional beverage director for Pennsylvania, said the application process started in the commonwealth last year. The Rochester, N.Y.-based grocery chain already has beer and some other liquor sales in its stores in New York, New Jersey and Virginia.

Store personnel involved with the beer sales in Pennsylvania will go through Wegmans’ training program developed for the other states with in-store alcohol sales and be certified by the PLCB’s Responsible Alcohol Management Program, or RAMP.

RAMP training teaches employees how to serve alcohol responsibly, how to detect fake identification, to not sell alcohol to minors and visibly intoxicated patrons, and to reduce alcohol-related problems at licensee establishments.

“We’re very confident in our program,” DeMascole said.

DeMascole said there is no set date when beer will go on sale at its Pennsylvania stores.

With the restaurant license, Wegmans could also sell wine by the glass, but will be starting with only beer.

“We’re moving slow, one step at a time,” DeMascole said. “We want to do it right.”

Beer sold by the glass must be consumed in the store with a meal purchased at the store. No one will be allowed to sit in Wegmans cafe and just drink beer, DeMascole said. The case with single and six-pack beer merchandise will be in the café in a well-controlled area.

Wegmans, known for selling in-season produce from local growers, will carry that to its beer sales.

DeMascole said Wegmans is in contact with Victory Brewing in Downingtown to sell that brewer’s beer. It already uses a Victory beer in one of its soups.

The application comes at a time when the decision to issue Sheetz convenience stores a liquor license is under appeal before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which has yet to hear oral arguments in the case.

The PLCB conditionally issued a license in 2004 to Ohio Springs Inc., a Sheetz-related company, to sell beer and malt products.

Sheetz began to sell beer Feb. 1 but was stopped twice during the appeals process. The Malt Beverages Distributors Association of Pennsylvania sued to stop the Ohio Springs license from being granted.

Beer sales resumed Aug. 28 after the Supreme Court lifted a stay on the sales while it heard the PLCB’s appeal of a Commonwealth Court ruling.

DeMascole said Wegmans does not think the court decision will affect it.

“We don’t see this the same as Sheetz,” DeMascole said. “We see our process differently than theirs. It’s not the same situation. Our submission is within the guidelines of the law.”

By GRETCHEN METZ, Staff Writer

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