More than a decade after its West Philadelphia store sold its last cold brew, Wawa is trying to get back into the beer business.
The company has applied for a license to sell beer from its Naamans Creek Road location in Chadds Ford, Delaware County. And it has said that sales could expand to other stores if the Delco experiment is a success.
It’s a proposal that would put Wawa in step with its biggest competitor in Pennsylvania, Sheetz, which dominates the central and western parts of the state. Sheetz has been selling beer at some locations since 2007, fighting a number of legal and political battles along the way.
Wawa’s decision to enter the fray excites critics of Pennsylvania’s labyrinth of liquor laws, including Lew Bryson, author of the guidebook, “Pennsylvania Breweries,” and a longtime advocate for liquor sales statute reform.
“Wawa getting in on this is huge. You’ve got two of the three biggest convenience chains pushing for what should be a no-brainer,” Bryson said via email. “Buying beer at a convenience store or gas station is no more ‘dangerous’ than buying it at a distributor or bar or grocery store … last time I looked, they all have parking lots.”
If its application is approved, Wawa will join the growing number of food retailers selling beer in Pennsylvania, including Wegmans, Giant, Whole Foods and Acme. Like them, Wawa will have to arrange its store to accommodate the technicalities of Pennsylvania’s liquor laws, which prohibit sales in grocery stores and gas stations.
Statewide trend: One store, two cash registers
Retailers typically get around these prohibitions by selling beer from special sections of their stores, complete with their own cash registers, so that the alcohol and gas (or groceries) are technically sold separately.
Tom Mehaffie of the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania said his group has challenged those kinds of licenses before, and could well do so again if the Delco store is approved by Concord Township officials when they vote on the proposal later this month.
The intention of Pennsylvania lawmakers is clear — food stores and gas stations shouldn’t be selling alcohol, he said.
“We have intervened on numerous applications in front of the Liquor Control Board that are selling liquid fuels and also selling alcoholic beverages. The Legislature codified … and ratified that [law] to say, [stores] ‘shall not’ sell at the same place, property and location,” Mehaffie said.
Mehaffie’s group recently challenged Sheetz’s right to sell six-packs from its Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, location. The court ruled in the company’s favor, finding that the separate cash registers and other store design elements satisfied Pennsylvania’s requirements. The store is now back to selling beer while the association appeals.
In the long run, Mehaffie said, opening the beer market to food retailers will cost consumers. Food stores can undercut independent distributors and bottle shops, he said, and have less of an incentive to keep their businesses clean and free of loiterers and panhandlers.
As a beer distributor, “if I lose my license, I lose my business,” Mehaffie said. “If they lose their license, they don’t.”
But where Mehaffie worries about big chains putting mom-and-pop beer distributors and bottle shops out of business, Bryson said the next step is to completely eliminate what he calls the “silly legal games” that retailers must play to comply with the code.
“A distributor can sell a 12-pack with no cafe, but a grocer needs seating and a menu to sell two sixpacks?” Bryson wrote. “The state liquor code needs a thorough and modern revision; instead we get unending tinkering.”
Wawa’s record with beer sales in Pennsylvania isn’t spotless. The company sold beer for years from its 38th and Spruce Street location, near the University of Pennsylvania; multiple citations for underage sales led state officials to oppose the renewal of its liquor license. In 2003, the license was transferred to Campo’s Deli in Old City, a Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board spokesman said.
But even so, Wawa’s local reputation as a solid corporate partner could help it win support for expanding beer sales beyond Delaware County.
Asked if her group would oppose the sale of beer at the new “flagship” Wawa set to open at Broad and Walnut, the heart of the Avenue of the Arts, Maggie Lund, president of the Center City Residents Association, said she could see the advantages.
“We enjoy a beer as much as the next person,” Lund said. “We would just look that any local establishment that’s selling beer is respectful of the neighborhood, makes sure they’re not selling to underage people and makes sure there’s not trash on the street.
“I wouldn’t have a problem with Wawa selling beer,” she said. “As long as it’s within the city and state ordinances.”