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Markets seek a 2d crack at beer-and-wine debate

Ballot question defeated in ’06 in costly, bitter fight

By Meg Murphy
Globe Correspondent / August 11, 2011

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People south of Boston are dreading the renewal of a beer-and-wine debate they remember as pitting small grocers and chain supermarkets against corner package stores and liquor wholesalers.

When the Massachusetts Food Association, representing more than 600 stores in the state, asked voters in 2006 to allow wine to be sold in food stores, it triggered one of the most expensive ballot-question campaigns in state history, with opposing sides combined spending more than $11.5 million.

In the suburbs south of Boston, United Liquors of Braintree and Horizon Beverages of Avon were key players in the successful “Vote No’’ campaign, an effort that raised $4.6 million to fight the wine-in-food-stores possibility.

Last week, the Massachusetts Food Association took another shot at it by filing two ballot questions with state Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office, one that would allow food stores to sell wine and a second to allow grocery stores and supermarkets to sell beer and wine, under local control.

The news of a possible second round in the wine-and-beer retail battle is already sparking strong reaction from local merchants, wholesale liquor distributors, and residents.

“I think it’s a little ridiculous,’’ said Hong Nguyen, a member of the family-owned Franklin Beer & Wine in Quincy. “This made all small businesses like ours afraid last time and it didn’t even happen. Why do it again?’’

A different opinion prevailed directly across the street at the Sunshine Fruit Co. “Customers like one-stop shopping. If I am allowed to sell wine and beer, I will do it. Why not?’’ said Dinesh Patel, owner of the food market and five other local retail stores.

In Massachusetts, supermarkets need permission from their municipal government to sell beer and wine, and are not allowed to hold more than three permits in the state, limiting the number of chain grocery stores able to sell alcohol.

These restrictions create a real drawback for innovative breweries, said Joe Slesar, owner of Boston Beer Works, a restaurant and brewery with five sites from metro Boston to locations on the North and South shores, and Hingham Beer Works.

“I think change would be a positive thing,’’ said Slesar. Boston Beer Works distributes its beer to a couple of hundred package stores in Massachusetts.

“I’d like to expand the possibilities. I’d like to see our Bunker Bluebeery Ale, Boston Red, and Fenway Pale Ale at places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. We really just got started doing distribution. But we can’t negotiate with the chains because right now that means we’re talking about selling our beer in, like, three stores in the state. Come on now, I think people like to have options.’’

In fact, the 2006 initiative, which would have allowed wine to be sold in as many as 2,000 food stores, was defeated only with 56 percent of voters against it and 44 percent for it, according to results from Secretary of State William Galvin’s elections division website. Thirty-five other states allow alcohol sales in grocery stores, including New Hampshire.

People in many suburbs south of Boston remember the tensions created the first time the supermarkets began pushing this issue, said John Melchiono, manager of Blanchard’s Liquors in Marshfield.

“We had lots of conversations with our customers. All the same concerns are still on the table,’’ he said, noting that Blanchard’s is located between a Stop & Shop and a Roche Brothers, neither of which are currently permitted to sell wine or beer.

“What will the chains offer in terms of competition and pricing? What kind of customer service? We know our customers; we talk to them every day,’’ he said. “But we’re talking about coming up against a big industry. There are a lot of lobbyists with a lot of money. Of course, it creates stress about what will happen, what it means for business in the future.’’

On the supermarkets’ side in the 2006 ballot battle, Stop & Shop, Shaw’s, and Hannaford Bros. Co. represented 72 percent of the $6.9 million raised in support of the wine-in-stores initiative.

The prospect of another ballot push was met with real concern by Donald Dong, owner of Big Jim’s Liquor Store in Avon. “It is a bad idea,’’ he said, noting the potentially threatening existence of a nearby Stop & Shop.

“Stop & Shop is a big company and they have billions and billions of dollars and they will kill us,’’ said Dong. “Last time, we were really scared. If the government allows the big companies to do the wine and beer, we’ll lose everything. We’ll be dead. We’ll have to find a new business.’’

He also expressed skepticism about any large corporation’s ability to ensure minors are not purchasing alcohol, since, as he put it, “The big places, lots of people, no owner behind the counter - it’s a bad thing.’’

At the Wine & Spirits Depot in Pembroke, located next to a Stop & Shop, Joseph Callahan, assistant manager, expressed a similar concern. “With large corporations selling beer and wine, who is going to be watching? I am constantly checking IDs. I know pretty much every person that walks in here. It’s not corporate; it’s local and down-to-earth,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, a potential compromise between the dueling industry advocates is possibly at hand, in the form of a bill pending in the Legislature that would allow grocery stores to hold up to 20 licenses in the state, but not more than one in any city or town. Supermarket representatives had testified before the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure in May.

Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@gmail.com.