Sunbury-based grocer recently unveiled new beer cafes at stores in York and Ephrata – and more are on the way.
There’s much to be said about the Pennsylvania liquor code and it’s governing body, the Liquor Control Board. As moderators of how PA residents can buy, sell and drink booze, the PLCB – an acronym that’s akin to a four-letter word depending on who you’re talking to – takes a lot of heat for the state’s tightly held liquor laws. It’s a polarizing conversation topic; whether you’re a buyer or seller, politician or resident, law enforcement officer or guy/gal just looking to have a good time, it’s likely you have an opinion on the availability (or lack there of) of alcohol here in the Commonwealth.
Privatization – the legal buzzword describing the effort to dismantle the state-owned liquor sales system and give private businesses the opportunity to obtain wine and liquor licenses, among other provisions – has been a hot-button topic in the PA legislature for years. But while the state’s elected officials have endured the back-and-forth that is modern-day democracy, Sunbury-based grocer Weis Markets has been mostly silent on the topic. Vocally silent, that is.
Actions speak louder than words, after all, and since 2006, Weis Markets has been steadily equipping many of its 122 Pennsylvania stores with “beer cafes” – a dedicated swath of the grocery store where four-packs, six-packs and single bottles of beer are ready for the buying. And drinking.
Recently, Weis welcomed two new beer cafes to the fold – numbers 27 and 28 in the state – as approved licenses were granted to its stores in Ephrata in Lancaster County in February and at the Queensgate Shopping Center in York in March. Both mark the second occurrence of a Weis beer cafe in each county, as stores in West Manchester in York County and Lititz in Lancaster County were approved to sell beer in 2014. According to the PLCB liquor license search database, Central PA is likely to see additional cafes in the not-so-distant future as locations on Fruitville Pike in Lancaster’s Red Rose Commons shopping center, Carlisle Street in Hanover, East Market Street in York and Mae Street in Hummelstown all have pending licenses.
So how does a grocery store – not to mention a grocery store in Pennsylvania – go about acquiring a permit to stock their shelves with beer? As Weis Markets spokesman Dennis Curtin explains, the process starts the same way as it would for any proposed liquor licensed establishment: with an application.
“We use the licenses the same way as a pizza shop that sells beer. Supermarkets today sell a significant amount of food for on-premises consumption – pizzas, salad bars, sandwiches, sushi,” says Curtin. “So as a result, we qualify under existing LCB law for these licenses.”
In addition to the need for ready-to-eat food, Curtin notes that other qualifications are needed in order to be considered for a license: a defined area where beer can be shelved and consumed; seating for at least 30 people; a separate entrance to the beer cafe from outside; and a separate register to ring in sales. Similar to any other carryout beer store, Weis is only permitted to sell up to 192 ounces – or two six-packs of 16-ounce beers – per transaction.
Weis Markets’ decision nine years ago to obtain a liquor license was an interesting move, especially considering the lengths to which convenience store chains like Altoona-based Sheetz have gone to petition and lobby for legislative change to the liquor code. When asked whether Weis has joined the efforts to push for privatization, Curtin concedes that that‘s not their top priority.
“We’re aware of what’s going on in Harrisburg, but our focus today is securing licenses and establishing and opening beer cafes. We’ll let our elected officials sort that out over the long run.”
So what can you expect from a trip to a beer cafe-equipped Weis Market? As Weis category manager for beer, wine and specialty foods Brian Smith explains, variety is the name of the game.
“Our Mix-a-Six program is very popular with customers,” explains Smith, noting current craft beer purchasing patterns show that consumers prefer the opportunity to explore new beer brands and styles without committing to a large quantities. “In my case, I really like IPAs, so I’m the type of person that likes the ability to try six new IPAs instead of buying a six-pack.”
Adds Curtin: “When we opened up in 2006 in Tannersville in Monroe County, I remember talking to the local media, saying, ‘Look, craft beers are really growing. People want to learn about them. And sometimes they don’t want to spend $35-$40 a case for something that they’ve never tasted. Now they can come into a Weis Markets store and buy a six-pack.’ Fast forward to 2015 – now it’s down to a bottle.”
As craft beer – particularly the craft cider segment, Smith notes – continues to grow, both Curtin and Smith agree that Weis’ beer cafes will follow suit and expand their selection. The new beer cafe in Ephrata, for example, has more than 750 varieties of beer – from craft microbrews to Big Beer domestics and imports – available.
As Curtin sees it, Pennsylvanians have proven that they have an interest in beer. Citing a recent study conducted by The New Yorker magazine, Curtin notes that Pennsylvania ranks second in the nation for beer produced annually, trailing only California and ranking ahead of Colorado, Oregon and Ohio.
It’s with that statistic in mind that Weis Markets beer cafes’ beer leads – employees at each store that oversee things like beer inventory and displays – make special efforts to give regional craft breweries ample shelf space. The recently launched beer cafe in Ephrata features cans of St. Boniface’s Paideia Pale Ale and Libation Double IPA, alongside brews from fellow Northern Lancaster brewery Stoudts, Tröegs in Hershey, York’s Liquid Hero and Lancaster Brewing Co.
But more than just capitalizing on a growing market segment, Curtin is adamant that Weis Markets sees value in the other side of the equation – convenience.
“We hear it all the time – that it saves people a shopping trip,” he says. “Our customers appreciate the convenience factor. It complements the food we sell.”
And with summertime barbecues fast approaching, it’s exciting to know that the prospect of picking up a six-pack or two along with hot dogs, burgers and buns is no longer just a dream here in Central PA. It’s the new reality.