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Proposal for new liquor permits would ease convenience, grocery rules, including separate register requirement

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In this file photo, a customer takes a six-pack of beer from the refrigerator at the Weis Market in Lititz, which has been selling beer since 2014.

State Rep. Matt Dowling, R-Somerset County, has introduced a bill that could abolish something that nobody really does — drink beer in a convenience store.

While it might feel strange to buy a beer at a Sheetz and then open it before you leave the store, it’s actually your legal right.

Grocery and convenience stores sell beer and wine with restaurant liquor licenses, so they have to operate like restaurants. And that includes allowing patrons to drink on site.

And since they’re legally seen as restaurants, the stores also must to have seating for at least 30 people, a standard that sometimes requires construction before alcohol sales can begin.

While restaurant liquor licenses can be a mismatch for convenience and grocery store operators, those are the rules they must follow to sell beer and wine.

But three years after the passage of Act 39, which prompted more convenience and grocery stores to start selling alcohol with restaurant liquor licenses, Dowling’s proposal would free them from many trappings of a restaurant.

His proposed House Bill 1644 would create a Customer Convenience Permit that would cost $25,000 and free stores with restaurant liquor licenses from the requirements to have 30 seats, sell alcohol only from designated registers, and allow customers to drink at the store.

The legislation would also allow stores with the permit to sell beer and wine from anywhere in the store, while also removing the limits on how much customers can buy at a time.

“It would make it easier for grocery and convenience stores and also make it more convenient for consumers,” Dowling told LNP.

The bill was the subject of a hearing last week before the state House’s Liquor Control Committee. During the hearing, it become clear that some parts of the plan will be tweaked.

But several days after the hearing, Dowling said he remains hopeful that aspects of his proposal will eventually become law, especially a change that would allow convenience stores to prohibit drinking on premises.

“We really don’t want people drinking in gas stations," he said.

Liquor law evolution

The proposal for the new permits comes after a huge increase in the last three years of convenience and grocery stores seeking liquor licenses to sell beer and wine.

The renewed interest came because Act 39, which became law in August 2016, overturned a longtime prohibition on beer and gasoline being sold in the same place. The law also allowed “R” liquor license holders to sell to-go wine, which made the licenses more attractive for grocery stores.

Without their own category of licenses, grocery and convenience store operators sought “R” licenses. That had the side effect of driving up the cost for the limited supply of such licenses, which are sold in the private market.

Prices for the licenses, which had been just over $200,000 in 2016, reached $400,000 after the change.

Those sky-high prices have prompted some smaller restaurateurs in Lancaster County to sell their licenses to larger, corporate operators of grocery and convenience stores.

Big box interest

The proposal for the new customer convenience permits comes as a new large retailer —Walmart — is seeking a restaurant liquor license for a store in Uniontown, which is in Dowling’s district.

Melissa Bova, vice president of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, said the bill as drafted especially favors big box stores like Walmart since it would allow them to add beer sales without making major store changes.

While nobody from Walmart testified at last week’s hearing, Bova noted that committee members toured the Uniontown Walmart that is seeking the restaurant license.

State Rep. Jeffrey Pyle, R-Armstrong County, who chairs the liquor control committee, told LNP the Walmart tour was helpful for picturing alternative ways to sell beer, but he added he won’t tailor the bill for the retailer.

“We’re not going to make a carve-out for Walmart,” Pyle said.

Yet Pyle said he sees some real merits in the changes being proposed, even though he doesn’t support others, such as the one that would let stores sell beer and wine in any aisle.

“I do not think it’s ready to go,” Pyle said of the bill in its current form.

House Bill 1644 by Digital on Scribd