Stop-and-go bill may shake up Philly small businesses, but some criticism is misdirected

A deli is shown in West Philadlephia under the Market Street Line.

A deli is shown in West Philadlephia under the Market Street Line. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

There is nothing more infuriating than hearing at the last minute about something that affects your life.

In only a month’s time, a bill has been proposed, written, and heard that could dramatically change the landscape of Philadelphia. The bill had only one hearing a little over one week before it will go to a final vote. Dissenting voices were limited to 30 minutes at the end of the long hearing, and only those seeking to praise it were invited to speak and testify in support of the bill.

The bill in question is Bill No. 170963, sponsored by Councilwoman Cindy Bass and introduced on Nov. 2, with the intent of ending “stop-and-go” beer establishments.

Criticism of this bill has been focused on two arguments: Some think it bans stores from protecting themselves, while others think it targets Asian store owners. Neither is strictly true.

These establishments are in largely poor neighborhoods and take advantage of Pennsylvania liquor laws by claiming to sell food, despite the fact the majority of their sales are from alcohol and cigarettes with very little food being sold. They loom in our poorest communities with large bullet-proof glass boxes between the owners and customers, often making customers feel like criminals in their own neighborhoods.

For years, groups across the city, notably in Germantown and North Philadelphia, have tried to shut these places down with little to no effect. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is the only agency with jurisdiction, and — with only 22 officers handling issues in Philadelphia, Delaware, and Montgomery counties — action was rare. A new law signed by Gov. Tom Wolf on Nov. 1 now clearly establishes the requirements for a restaurant liquor license and enhances the ability for local agencies to handle enforcement.

Bill No. 170963 is designed to work with the new state law and establishes that there are “large” and “small” restaurant licenses, the small restaurants being designated as accommodating up to 30 patrons, while a larger establishment license is granted to any place that provides seating for at least 30 customers, encompasses at least 400 square feet, and features a public bathroom. In short, if you’re a large restaurant, it’s expected you act like one.

To sell alcohol, you need to be a large restaurant. Considering the requirements, it’s unlikely that any of the stop-and-gos that have fostered blight and have been a nuisance in the past would fall into the “large restaurant” classification. However, this may also put at risk legitimate businesses that are actually the cornerstone of their communities and offer the only ATM, bill payments, and cooked food in the area.

Also within the bill is a clause that states that any establishment that has a large-restaurant license may not “erect or maintain a physical barrier,” e.g., bullet-proof glass. The intention is to finally put stop-and-gos out of business by tearing down these walls.

However, it is a mistake to think that this is a full ban on plexiglass. This bill would require any restaurant that holds more than 30 people to remove its plexiglass. For example, the KFC at Broad and Girard would have to remove its glass barricades if it got a large-establishment license. That also means that a small store that has decided to get its license so it can serve beer will be forced to either remove its glass or stop selling alcohol. So your local gas station or corner store that doesn’t sell alcohol wouldn’t be affected.

There are going to be places stuck in the middle. Plenty of restaurants have put up plexiglass in order to protect themselves from crime — including many small Chinese food restaurants and delis. These corner shops may also sell beer, but they are good local citizens, and they see the bullet-proof glass as their only line of defense.

That brings us to the second criticism: That it targets Asian business owners. Mike Choe, who runs a nonprofit supporting Korean-owned businesses, is on the record saying, “I do think it’s a bad bill that will endanger Korean-Americans.” When Councilwoman Cindy Bass has been asked about the possible targeting of Asians, she has repeatedly denied it; in one case, she simply responded, “Absolutely not. I find that offensive.”

The reality is that a large number of these stop-and-go places have Asian owners, but my opinion is that correlation does not equal causation. It’s worth noting that a 2005 ordinance that forces any business on a largely residential block to close at 11 p.m. (to limit the nuisance of properties that attract crime) came under fire earlier this year by the Asian business community because they felt the law unfairly targeted their businesses. There is a history of business legislation that has had an unintended impact on Asian businesses.

Many of these business owners showed up to Monday’s hearing. One passionate speaker told a story about being attacked at knifepoint. She said she thought Bass’ bill unfairly targets those who fled from Cambodia and other places in search of a better life in America.

In fact, both sides agree that there is a need to target stop-and-go locations that prey upon the community, bathrooms should be in restaurants, and that giving the local authorities the ability to deal with these issues is fine.

The issue comes down to one thing: The glass.

The short-term effect of this legislation will be that some businesses will have to close. However, the free market may foster the creation of new businesses, and some existing businesses may be able to expand and offer similar services that help the community.

Monday, the bill passed the Health and Human Services Committee. It now advances to a full session for a second reading and a final vote, tentatively scheduled for Dec. 14. But it contains a big change: The bullet-proof glass provision will be studied by the Department of Licenses and Inspections until 2021 when they will give recommendations. The bill is expected to pass.

Larry West is the Republican committeeman for Philadelphia’s 22nd Ward, 26th Division.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

50% of WHYY’s funding comes from donations made by people just like you.