Sunday, April 02, 2006

Local Prohibitionists Strike Again!

At least for my township, stupidity seems to know no bounds, as neo-prohibitionists come out of the woodwork to protest a cafe's intentions to sell beer.

The owners of a local supermarket chain intend to intend to remodel retail space adjoining one of their stores into a sandwich shop, probably in the same image as other supermarket chains that have successfully attracted customers with an in-store shop. While the cafe hasn't yet been built, the owners have already applied for a license to sell beer, which is by no means an easy task under Pennsylvania's strict laws.

From the Morning Call's article:

Weis Markets, which owns the store on Route 873 in the Schnecksville area, wants to add a cafe, separated from the grocery area by a 4-foot-high display case, and hopes customers can have a beer there, take home up to two six-packs, or do both.

For anyone who isn't from Pennsylvania, current laws prohibit bars, bottle shops and licensed restaurants from selling more than two six-packs to a single customer in one transaction. If you want more, you have to leave the premises and come back in again. Beer distributors (you can't buy beer in grocery stores or liquor stores in Pennsylvania) don't have these restrictions.

Weis officials said the cafe is an amenity that customers want in a fast-changing and competitive industry. Curtin said strict controls would be in place to prevent sales to underage customers.

So, in a fit of capitalistic ardor, the owners saw an opportunity to attract customers and one-up the competition at the same time and went for it. Customers like having a beer with their meals, just ask any bar owner who's open for the lunch and dinner crowd. The owners also state that they're going to make damn sure minors won't be served alcohol. But that's not enough, apparently:

But opponents contend that adding another beer outlet in the township, and one in a grocery store that could be frequented by minors, would increase the potential for youths to get alcohol.

Let the whining begin.

'You're making it easier'' for underage drinkers to get beer, despite Weis' best intentions, [township supervisor] Stoudt said.

''My heart says no,'' said [supervisor] Stahley, who, along with [supervisor] Heintzelman, shares concerns about underage drinking. ''But if we turn it down, they'll certainly appeal it to court. It's a very complex issue, and we're trying to do our homework on it.''

Oh, come on. Any kid will tell you that the easiest way to obtain alcohol is through a straw buyer who is of legal age to purchase it. The only way to stop underage drinking completely is total prohibition of alcohol, and that's assuming that nobody will make illicit booze (contrary to historical and contemporary evidence). The company, nevertheless, has a plan:

To prevent sales to minors, customers would be required to slide their drivers' licenses through an electronic age verification machine, similar to debit-card processors, which automatically reveals the person's age, Curtin said.

Customers would be able to pay for beer only in the cafe. And closed-circuit TV cameras would monitor transactions at a check-out counter within the cafe, separate from the grocery-store registers.

Open containers would not be allowed in the supermarket area, Curtin said. And Weis would hire no one younger than 25 to work at the cafe check-out, Curtin said, even though the law allows those as young as 18 to do so.

Sounds good to me. There is little any store can do to prevent minors from obtaining alcohol beyond checking for a valid ID and preventing open containers out of the sight of staff. Company spokesman Dennis Curtin responds to the criticism:

Curtin countered that Weis proposes nothing more than what's already being done at other bars and restaurants in the township where beer is served.

''This is something that is legally permitted, and we intend to abide by all rules and regulations,'' he said.

Bingo. The supermarket is simply being singled out for special treatment at the hands of busybodies.

David McCorkle, president of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, said ''a number of stores'' have adopted the practice of beer sales in grocery-market eateries, though he wasn't sure how many. ''It's not common, but there have been a few,'' he said.

''My understanding is, this is the beginning of a wave,'' said Slamon, the lawyer representing opponents of the Weis plan. She said the Sheetz convenience store chain is seeking a beer-only license for a store in Altoona in a case that is tied up in court.

There's the real point. Pennsylvania businesses can either innovate and ride the wave of prosperity or do nothing and watch customers go elsewhere.

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