Politics & Government

More places in Kansas will soon sell full-strength beer. Here’s what that means

In less than a month, you’ll be able to walk into a grocery or convenience store in Kansas and buy full-strength beer.

That may sound simple. But it’s a sweeping change for Kansas, one of the last states to sanction such sales.

The state held tight to Prohibition for decades and has allowed liquor stores to exercise near-total dominance over the retail sale of alcohol since then.

Beginning April 1, liquor stores will lose part of that control. Some fear — and others hope — that the changes won’t stop with strong beer.

Everyone agrees customers will have more choices than before. But businesses are deeply divided over whether the new rules will help or hurt them.

Grocery and convenience stores can barely contain their excitement. Some chains have rolled out extensive marketing campaigns. Others are adding more refrigerated storage so they can offer a wider selection of beer.

“We worked so hard to finally bring Kansas out of Prohibition – in a few more weeks we’ll be there. We love it,” said Mike Thornbrugh, a spokesman for QuikTrip.

Liquor stores are fearful the changes will cut into their business. Some are preparing to cut prices, or lure in customers with new products like cigars. The new law allows liquor stores to sell related items for the first time.

“I’m losing a little sleep at night” over the work that needs to be done, said Brian Davis, owner of Davis Liquor in Wichita. He plans to make changes to his store after April 1, including moving an adjacent smoke shop into the liquor store.

Still, Davis, president of the Kansas Association of Beverage Retailers, acknowledged beer drinkers will have more choices.

“It’s a positive change for the consumer,” Davis said.

Legislators changed the law only after years of campaigning by grocery and convenience stores for expanded sales. Liquor stores mounted intense opposition before the sides reached a compromise in 2017.

The law allows convenience and grocery stores to begin selling beer with up to 6 percent alcohol by volume on April 1. Now, the stores can sell beer with 3.2 percent alcohol by weight.

The law also enables liquor stores to sell non-alcoholic products as long as they don’t exceed 20 percent of gross sales, though tobacco and lottery tickets would be excluded from the total.

Grocery and convenience stores still will be unable to sell wine and hard liquor. The hours of sales for grocery stores, convenience stores and liquor stores won’t change.

The changes also don’t affect who can have access to alcohol. The minimum age to buy alcohol remains 21.

Craft beers featured

It’s unclear how much longer grocery stores and gas stations would have been able to offer 3.2 beer. Most states have loosened their laws. Minnesota and Utah are the only states left that still set a limit of 3.2 percent.

The 3.2 percent restriction limited the beers available at grocery stores and gas stations to a handful of big brands like Budweiser and Heineken. The change will allow full-strength versions of those staples, but also allow some craft beers into stores.

Craft brews such as Free State Golden, Boulevard Wheat or Wichita Brewing Company’s 5:02 Amber could all be sold in grocery stores and gas stations.

The grocery store chain Dillons is bringing in additional equipment to handle the new beer it will be able to offer. Company spokeswoman Sheila Lowrie said stores are receiving more refrigerated cases to handle the increased inventory.

“Our stores will feature many new, local craft beers from Kansas,” Lowrie said.

QuikTrip sees a huge potential for increased sales. Within the convenience store industry, beer sales typically account for 10 percent to 12 percent of total sales inside the store, Thornbrugh said. In Kansas, it’s about one percent, he said.

“You can see the growth we’re going to have. Even if we only get half of it, that’s a tremendous increase,” Thornbrugh said.

Under the terms of the law, many craft beers will still be excluded because their alcohol content exceeds 6 percent. But Thornbrugh thinks that will eventually change because craft brewers will want to sell more of their beer styles.

“I think it’s just a matter of time until they drop that provision,” Thornbrugh said of the state.

Concerns about the future

While grocery and conveniences stores are excited, liquor stores are approaching the change with a mixture of frustration and determination. When lawmakers approved it in 2017, some liquor store owners predicted that a number of stores would close up shop.

Delano Retail Liquor in Wichita announced recently that it was closing and began slashing prices up to 20 percent. The current owners have operated the store for 13 years, but the location has been a liquor store for decades.

Owner Susan Schoket said she didn’t decide to close the store because of expanded beer sales. But the decision didn’t help, either.

“There is no one that would buy our store because of that law. So we weren’t able to sell it and we’re having to liquidate,” Schoket said.

Sen. Mary Ware, a Wichita Democrat who calls Schoket a friend, said having full-strength beer in grocery and convenience stores is convenient, but she expressed reservations about the effects.

“It’s too bad it ends up hurting the little guy so often,” Ware said.

The 2017 law requires Alcoholic Beverage Control to conduct an assessment in 2029 on the impact of the new law on the number of liquor licenses, state and local tax revenues and other factors. That has led to hope among some involved in crafting the compromise that it will hold for the next decade.

But there is no formal agreement and lawmakers are free to pursue any future changes they want.

One potential next step would be to allow grocery and convenience stores to sell wine. Rep. Jan Kessinger, R-Overland Park, said he wants to see that happen.

“It’s part of a meal,” Kessinger said. “When you go to the grocery store, you’re buying stuff for your meal — you pick up your wine, too.”

Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.