Wawa just one of many chains getting into the Pa. beer game

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This week, a Wawa in Delaware County cleared another hurdle toward offering suds along with its hoagies. Concord Township’s Board of Supervisors approved a conditional plan to allow the convenience store heavyweight to sell limited amounts of beer at a Chadds Ford location.

Pennsylvania’s beer sales have long been dominated by beer distributors and take-out six packs from bars. However, the landscape of alcohol sales has slowly changed across the commonwealth, according to Shawn Kelly, a spokesman for the Liquor Control Board. Earlier this year, LCB spokeswoman Stacy Kriedeman said more than 250 grocery and convenience stores statewide are already in the business of booze.

“In recent years, the Liquor Control Board has seen an increase in the number of grocery stores, particularly chain grocery stores, that have sought to acquire liquor licenses,” said Kelly. Many grocery chains in the Philadelphia suburbs — from Acme to Wegmans — already sell beer.

Does this mean the board is minting a bunch of new licenses? Not at all, said Kelly. There’s a quota, and “most counties in the commonwealth are over the existing quota,” he said.

Over time, the Legislature has gradually tightened the number of liquor licenses available for retail spaces, but most counties are over the established quotas “simply because they were grandfathered in,” according to Kelly.

For example, Delaware County has more than 350 retail liquor licenses in circulation, even though the legal quota as of Dec. 31, 2014, is only 186.

Without getting too technical, retail businesses that want to sell alcohol in the Keystone State need one of three licenses: an eating place license (E-license), a restaurant license (R-license) or a club license. All three count toward county population level quotas.

“The example I like to give is you’re going to open a pizza shop and you want to sell a six pack, then you would need an E-license,” said Kelly. “If you want to have your customers enjoy a glass of wine with your pizza, then you would need an R-license.”

Chain stores are therefore buying existing licenses — often at astronomical prices due to high demand — and transferring them to their own grocery or convenience stores. Like the grocery stores buying up liquor licenses, the Wawa in Chadds Ford will have to create a separate eating space and point-of-sale for alcohol purchases. Customers will be limited to two six-packs to go or a single beer to drink on the premises.

Concord Township officials applied a few other conditions as well. There can be no beer on tap, no drinking outside, and the store will have to put up $15,000 to support improvements along Route 202.

Wawa spokesman Lori Bruce told the Inquirer last month that the Delco location is a just test case — no other Pennsylvania locations are exploring suds sales at this time.

“We may look to expand the offering depending on our experience,” she said. If the company does decide to expand, each location will require Wawa to buy an existing license, get approval from local officials and the Liquor Control Board.

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