Store owners at odds over wine question

For front row seats to the battle over Ballot Question One, an initiative that would create a new category of liquor licenses allowing grocery stores to sell wine, look no farther than Morrissey Boulevard.

On Columbia Point, Harbor Point Liquors leases space from and shares a building with the Shaw's Market. The liquor store has contributed $1,500 to Vote No on One, a lobby group working against the ballot initiative. Shaw's and another chain grocery store chain, Stop & Shop, are working closely with lobby groups like Yes on 1: Grocery Stores and Consumers for Fair Competition. Stop & Shop, with a store in the nearby South Bay Shopping Center, donated $1 million to the Massachusetts Food Association for Consumer Convenience in Wine Sales.

While picking up a bottle of Chardonnay or a box of Franzia at Harbor Point, one can grab a flyer urging you to do your part to keep wine in liquor stores; stepping through the open-air divider between the liquor and grocery store on your way to the Tostitos shelf, one has the opportunity to peruse complementary reading material championing the opposing position.

Harbor Point Liquor's owner Paul Barry, who has leased space from the Shaw's since both stores opened at the Morrisey Boulevard site ten years ago, says his relationship with Shaw's management has been nothing but amicable - but that hasn't impacted his strident opposition to Question One.

"I'm not in favor of them creating a new license, because there are plenty of liquor sellers as it is and the big grocery stores already control the maximum number of licenses available to them," said Barry. "And it's all very unclear. If there's a new ballgame, what are the new rules?"

The full text of Ballot Question One explains that the proposed law would allow for the sale of wine at food stores. A food store is defined as an establishment that sells food for off-site consumption; stock must include items like meat, dairy, and produce. Passage of the law would create a new category of liquor licenses available to qualifying establishments. Licensing boards within a city or town would be authorized to issue up five new wine licenses for their first five thousand residents, and one per every five thousands residents after that.

"The opposition is trying to push the idea that all of a sudden things are going to run amok and there's going to be thousands and thousands of new licenses out there," said Judy Chong, a spokesperson for Shaw's. "There's a formula in place, and we don't believe it will result in more than 1,000 new licenses."

She painted her company's position as one of convenience for Shaw's customers, and said she did not believe selling wine would negatively impact existing liquor stores.

"We sell flowers at Shaw's and we're at plazas where florists exist. In other states liquor stores and grocery stores that do sell wine exist fine together," said Chong.

Steve Spellman, the store manager at the South Bay Stop & Shop, was similarly dismissive of the proposed law's effect on existing businesses.

"Someone comes in and buys seafood, and buys the white wine goes with it," said Spellman. "We weren't envisioning people coming to us to buy their beer and liquor."

Tom Cifrino's family owns the Fields Corner Mall, including Supreme Liquors, and a second Supreme store on Gallivan Boulevard. He said he has not been lobbying actively against the ballot initiative, but that he disagrees with the wording of the question.

"If Stop & Shop wants to go out and buy every existing liquor license, I'm not against that as long as they buy existing licenses," said Cifrino. "That's just fair trade. My problem is with issuing new licenses. It devalues existing licenses and there is no control over enforcing it."

Supreme Liquors shares the mall with a grocery store, the recently rechristened Capitol Food Basket. Cifrino said the presence of that or any other grocer in the mall would not impact his liquor store, because Supreme has a clause in their lease to be the exclusive seller of alcohol in the shopping center.

Cifrino said that he did not think grocery stores would establish the kind of self-checks needed to keep minors from purchasing alcohol. By way of example, he said his Supreme Liquors hires an independent company from Cambridge to periodically check that his staff is enforcing age requirements by randomly sending undercover employees posing as would-be underage buyers to the store.

"I don't think the [Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission] can police this," said Cifrino. "I've been in too many convenience stores in my life to think that if a 17 year-old kid is behind the counter and a teenager brings up a six pack, he's not going to serve him."

Chong disagreed, saying that Shaw's has a spotless track record of keeping alcohol from minors at the three Massachusetts stores where alcohol is currently sold.

"We have staff training initiatives already in place because we do sell wine in other states," said Chong. They understand we have a zero tolerance policy on sales to minors, and we've done a very good job at enforcement."

Even if the initiative passes, it is unclear how many new licenses will be available in Boston, and equally uncertain what impact a wider availability of wine might have on the city's existing liquor sellers.

"I don't think that we'll go out of business- there is probably business for everybody," said Barry. "But even if the impact isn't the next day, it will come. What that will be, I don't know."

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