Why lawmakers, neighbors want to crack down on Philly’s ‘stop-and-go’ stores

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Plastic glass shields shots of liquor for sale at a stop-and-go in the Sharswood section of North Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Pastor William Brawner shook his head.

Across the street, a handful of older men was carousing around a car parked at the far end of an otherwise empty lot near Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia. Here and there, boisterous laughter pierced the air.

Even though Brawner’s back was turned to the group, he knew exactly what was happening behind him.

Public drinking is routine in this neighborhood.

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Pastor William Brawner of Haven Peniel United Methodist Church in Philadelphia’s Sharswood neighborhood says the drinking in the parking lot across the street from the church is a constant annoyance to his congregation. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“My people try to come in or go out from church and there’s people harassing them because they’re drunk or people are laid out in front of the streets,” said Brawner.

Stephanie Ridgeway, who co-owns a barbershop in the neighborhood, nods. This is why she invited Brawner and other concerned neighbors to join her on a “pub crawl.”

But there’s no drinking on the itinerary. Instead, Ridgeway wants to have a series of impromptu, face-to-face conversations with the owners of several nearby stop-and-gos, the small neighborhood convenience stores that sell snacks, cigarettes, and alcohol — sometimes in bottles or cans, sometimes in single shots.

To Ridgeway, these businesses are driving down the quality of life in an already struggling neighborhood by skirting state law.

“This world is built on making money. I understand that completely. But what we need is to have some humanity along with that because money is not everything,” said Ridgeway.

After a short prayer, the group heads to Penn Steak near the corner of 22nd Street and Ridge Avenue.

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Sharswood residents and activists say a prayer before heading to various neighborhood businesses that have restaurant licenses, but don’t operate as restaurants. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Inside, two women stand behind a long counter shielded by Plexiglas.

On the back wall, a pair of refrigerated cases is packed with a variety of beer and malt liquor. A stove sits nearby, but doesn’t look like it’s getting much use.

There’s a separate seating area across from the counter, but it’s behind a locked door. Ridgeway lets the employees know that’s not okay.

“You’re selling alcohol, you have to have seating. So, we’d like to have a seat, we’d like to have a menu and we’d like to order a beer. And if you don’t have that, that’s a violation,” she said.

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Stephanie Ridgeway confronts the owner of a “stop-and-go” store in Philadelphia’s Sharswood neighborhood where she lives. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The goal isn’t to shut down Penn Steak or any of the other stop-and-gos on the “pub crawl.” Ridgeway’s crew wants these businesses to be better neighbors. To her, that starts with them following the letter of their state-issued restaurant licenses and stronger enforcement if they don’t.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board oversees the stop-and-gos in Philadelphia and across the state.

These shops are required to have seating for at least 30 people and they have to sell food, according to PLCB spokeswoman Elizabeth Brassell. It may seem obvious for a restaurant to have something to eat, but the bar is pretty low.

“A minimum offering of a hot dog per person or chips or some kind of minimal food like that has been proved to meet that requirement,” said Brassell.

While this may seem nit-picky, Ridgeway and Brawner say enforcing these details could help move more of the drinking inside the stop-and-gos and off the streets of their neighborhood.

State lawmakers agree. Recently, the House passed a bi-partisan bill that would beef up the state liquor laws that apply to stop-and gos.

For example, it would require those with restaurant licenses to not only have seats for patrons, but seating that’s always available — not behind locked doors or chairs stacked up in a corner.

It would also step up enforcement of those rules.

“If they are not good neighbors, if they do not play by the rules, there is a chance some of them will be shut down,” said state Rep. Jordan Harris, one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

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An empty plastic shot glass at a Sharswood “stop-and-go.” (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Bill Chow, who owns a stop-and-go in the city’s West Oak Lane section, said there’s only so much business owners can do if their customers choose to drink their purchases outside the store in public.

“I mean, you put the onus on us, somebody is going to get hurt,” he said. “We go outside, what are we supposed to do. We ask them to leave and they don’t want to leave so are we supposed to fight them or something along that line?”

When owners call the police, Chow said customers loitering outside usually scatter, but come back when they know the coast is clear.

But Ridgeway and her group argue business owners could do more to make their stop-and-gos more neighborhood-friendly.

At the second stop on their pub crawl, Ridgeway tried to drive that point home to the store’s co-owners.

“If you were out on a day, shopping, and you wanted to stop and have a meal, would you come to this establishment? You wouldn’t,” she said. “This the last place you would think to do business. And this is why it’s important that we bring some light to all of the businesses on this block.”

The bill cracking down on stop-and-gos still needs to clear the Senate. Backers hope to get it to Governor Tom Wolf’s desk later this year.

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