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Liquor, grocery stores face off on allowing wider alcohol sales

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012, at 8:15 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, March 6, 2012, at 1:46 p.m.

More stores than ever — under the name Uncork Kansas — have lined up behind an attempt to allow full-strength beer, wine and liquor to be sold in grocery and convenience stores.

But state Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, says he’s not sure legislators will be any more amenable to the idea now than they have been in the past.

A bill to allow the expanded sales, and another that would allow tastings at liquor stores like the ones at wineries, have been introduced in the Kansas Legislature. A hearing on the tasting bill is set for Tuesday in the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee. The expanded-sales bill has not been assigned to committees yet.

Brunk said that if the bill comes to his committee — Federal and State Affairs in the House — he’s not sure he’ll have a hearing.

This is at least the fourth year in a row that grocery stores have asked to be allowed to sell full-strength beer. Each year more stores, including convenience stores and Walmart, have joined the effort, Brunk said.

A new-concept QuikTrip that opened earlier this month at 625 S. Hillside in Wichita includes shelves for expanded sales of alcohol built on the assumption that the law will change. Currently, convenience and grocery stores can sell only 3.2 beer and wine coolers.

“We hear from our customers every day that they would like the convenience” of being able to buy liquor at the grocery store, Dillons president Joe Grieshaber said. “We want a fair playing field, a fair market opportunity.”

But liquor store owners say the proposal would mostly benefit corporations based outside of Kansas while hurting independent liquor stores.

“If Dillons across the street sells wine at cost, are customers going to come to my store and grab the bottle, unless it’s one of those wines that Dillons is not going to carry?” said Shelly Breault, owner of R&J Discount Liquor in Wichita. “We’ve got a huge store” that provides health insurance for 14 full-time employees, she said, adding that she might not be able to provide that if the law changes.

R&J has an adjoining store in which it sells non-liquor items. Under the bill, liquor stores would be able to sell those items, including party supplies, within their liquor stores. Breault said that part would be attractive, because her customers would be able to make one purchase rather than two.

Brunk acknowledged the increasing pressure from non-liquor stores but said he wasn’t sure it would influence legislators who are against the change for a variety of reasons. They include not wanting to change the rules midstream for mom-and-pop liquor stores whose owners have built their lives around current law and who stand to lose business if the law changes, exposing young people and others to liquor and making it more visible, and losing some assurance that only those who are old enough will be allowed to buy it.

“The real problem in my mind,” Brunk said, “is that we don’t have a good transition period from one structure to another.”

The bill contains a moratorium of three years on new liquor licenses to let existing liquor store owners adjust to the new competition or sell their licenses to larger retailers. Brunk doesn’t find that sufficient.

Grieshaber said that if the law changed, Dillons would scan the driver’s license of everyone seeking to buy alcohol as it does for people buying cigarettes to ensure that underage people aren’t able to buy liquor. But Brunk said small grocery stores in rural areas might not have the same ability, and he pointed out that the non-liquor stores employ many minors.

Allowing taste-testing has support

The Senate measure on taste-testing, meanwhile, would allow retailers to host in-store tastings for people interested in trying unfamiliar beers, wines or distilled spirits.

State law bars consumption of alcoholic beverages inside liquor stores, and regulators recently ruled that that includes party or smoke shops, parking lots, sidewalks or alleys adjacent to the stores.

R.E. “Tuck” Duncan, a Statehouse lobbyist working with the liquor marketing groups, said the intent of the bill was to give liquor stores the chance to host tastings similar to those in wine country. Portions would be limited to half an ounce for distilled spirits, an ounce for wine and 2 ounces for beer.

Salina Republican Sen. Pete Brungardt, chairman of the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee, said farm wineries in Kansas are legally able to offer samples, and retail liquor stores should be able to do the same.

“It gives the consumer a chance to try something,” said Tom Jacob of Jacob Liquor Exchange. Craft beers are one of the categories that are a natural fit, he said.

Guy Bower, host of the radio show “The Good Life,” teaches classes at Wichita State University on wine appreciation and said he can’t believe the enthusiasm he sees for it.

“It helps to be able to taste, because there’s so many choices,” Bower said. He also thinks an allowance of taste tests would increase sales for liquor stores.

“They’re getting an informed consumer buying a product they like. I hope it goes through.”

Contributing: Associated Press Reach Anne Calovich at acalovich@wichitaeagle.com.

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