Policy

First Wine, Now Beer in (Some) Pennsylvania Supermarkets; Coming Soon: Cats and Dogs Living Together

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While researching a column about liquor store privatization, I came across a Philadelphia Inquirer story from a month ago with the intriguing headline "Pennsylvania Supreme Court Upholds Beer Sales at Wegmans Stores." Why did the Pennsylvania Supreme Court take up this issue, which in most states would not be an issue at all? Because under Pennsylvania law there are just two ways to buy beer for off-premise consumption: from an officially anointed distributor (which may sell only by the case, so you had better really like the beer you pick) or from a specially licensed restaurant (which may sell no more than two six-packs at a time, usually at an outrageous markup). Because Wegmans stores include sit-down caf├ęs, the company claimed to fall in the latter category, and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) granted it beer licenses for five locations (including one in my hometown, Wilkes-Barre).  Not surprisingly, the trade group representing beer distributors objected. The state Supreme Court sided with the supermarket chain and the PLCB, concluding that nothing in state law prevents beer-serving restaurants from operating within grocery stores, provided that the eating area meets minimum size requirements and is "clearly indicated by a permanent partition at least 4 feet in height." The court noted that its ruling "may foreshadow the expansion of the practice of large businesses opening restaurants within their facilities," which offers consumers a little more choice in one of the country's most absurdly regulated alcohol markets.

The court's opinion is here (PDF). A couple of years ago I noted the controversy over a proposal to deregulate beer sales in Pennsylvania so that you could buy, say, three six-packs of three different beers. Last year I noted the PLCB's foray into selling wine (heretofore available only in state stores) in supermarkets via semi-automated kiosks. It eventually installed 31 of them, all of which were taken offline for repairs last month, just in time for the holidays.