The recent push by a number of grocery chains to put beer-serving cafes in their stores has gotten pretty aggressive.
To wit: Less than 24 hours after final approval by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, the Mechanicsburg Weis looked like it had been serving beer for years.
“All the shelving and coolers and everything were already set up,” said Store Manager Andrew Campbell. “They approved us around noon [on Tuesday] and within an hour the trucks had arrived and we were stocking the shelves.”
Under Pennsylvania law, beer distributors are limited to selling cases or manufacturer-original 12-packs at their stores. Those with a restaurant or eatery designation cannot sell cases, but can sell six-packs to go.
This has resulted, in recent years, in a flood of grocery stores seeking to buy restaurant licenses in order to install cafes – and thus the ability to sell six-packs to grocery customers – in their locations.
“We can apply for these licenses provided that we have 30 seats, a separate entrance, and a separate register,” said Dennis Curtin, Weis’ corporate spokesperson. Just like any conventional restaurant or eatery, food must be available, and Weis offers fresh preparations from its deli.
“If you went to a supermarket 40 years ago, they weren’t selling food for on premise consumption,” Curtain said. “Fast forward, and it dawned on retailers throughout the state that they can qualify for a liquor license under existing regulations.”
Since 2006, Weis has added 40 beer cafes to PA stores, Curtain said.
Not only has the trend toward prepared foods in grocery stores taken off, but the boom in craft beers has pushed grocery retailers
even further toward the beer market.
Weis’ biggest seller for beer is the create-your-own six pack offering, allowing buyers to mix and match individual beers that they want to try. The Mechanicsburg store has 928 varieties.
Of course, craft beer enthusiasts are loath to invest in a whole case from a beer distributor of something they may not like. This has left Pennsylvania with what seems to be a pent-up demand for the ability to sample various inventive brews by the bottle.
“The Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller – they’re still big sellers,” Curtain said. “But the craft beer phenomenon has been steadily growing and Pennsylvania is the second-largest craft beer producer in the nation behind California.”
“PA beers sell faster in PA,” Curtain noted. “You can see there’s a lot of emphasis on the local connection.”
Of course, putting beer in a supermarket still requires a retail license, either a restaurant designation (which would also allow pours of liquor) or an eatery license, typically held by sandwich shops.
Depending on the county, these can be hard to come by. Pennsylvania’s quota system pegs licenses in any given jurisdiction to one per 3,000 people. Licenses can be bought and sold between townships and municipalities within a single county, although these must be approved by the jurisdiction’s governing body if the license being brought in would exceed the quota.
“We were able to buy a license from another operator in the county that was closing, and got approval to bring it into Lower Allen Township,” Campbell said. “We continue to grow. If we can find space in the store [for beer], the company wants to do it.”