What’s the buzz?
Open less than a month, the first supermarket in the county to sell beer is expanding.
Weis Markets store manager John Sullivan calls it the “wow factor.”
“You see customers enter and gaze straight at the new beer section and say ‘wow.’ Then they walk to the Beer Café, look around and say ‘wow’ again,” Sullivan said.
Weis, located at 740 S. Broad St. in Lititz, last month became the first supermarket in the county to sell beer.
The grocer, along with others such as Giant Food Stores, Wegman’s, and Sheetz began six years ago to buck archaic Pennsylvania beer laws to bring consumers greater choice and convenience that beer distributors in the state can’t match.
The Lititz Beer Café’s immediate success has already prompted Weis to draft expansion plans to increase beer space by up to 30 feet, Sullivan said.
Customers drawn from outside the Lititz area &tstr;including Chad Ressler of Ephrata who shopped the Beer Café on his day off Monday &tstr; provide living proof of the buzz Weis has created.
“I read about Weis’ beer sales in the newspaper and decided to check it out,” Ressler said.
Ressler points out that state laws which for decades had created a kind of take-it-or-leave-it selection and monopoly for beer distributors has shifted.
Beer distributors – which sell only cases and kegs – now find competition from growing package stores typically associated with bars or restaurants.
“I like that you have the ability to try different things without committing to a large quantity,” Ressler said while rounding out a $10.99 mix-and-match six-pack carton at Weis.
“With Pennsylvania’s case laws, you roll the dice if you want to try something new,” he said. “You could be in trouble getting stuck with something you are not fond of.”
There appears to be opportunity for a supermarket or convenience store facing only 29 beer distributors licensed in Lancaster County, according to Pennsylvania Control Board data.
“It’s an eye-opener, the sales have been very impressive,” said Dennis Curtin, Weis spokesman. “We’ll definitely pursue more licenses in the Lancaster County area.”
Beer distributors and Weis also compete with boutique beer businesses such as The Fridge and Hunger n Thirst in Lancaster that have grown dramatically in sales and selection along with several brew pubs like St. Boniface and Appalachian Brewing Co., which sell take-out beer in growlers.
But the allure of shopping in a one-stop-shopping, consumer-friendly supermarket atmosphere is considerable, said Jeff Turnbull of Lititz, who eyed up IPAs and Belgian beer varieties Monday.
Turnbull, formerly of New England, also noted that the supermarket price for craft and premium beers are significantly cheaper. The corked, 750 ml Chimay Reserve bottle he chose was priced $4 less than the six-pack boutiques.
“I guess what really matters is whether a supermarket can offer the variety and price to bring you back,” Turnbull said. “This is as good as I’ve seen. It reminds me of the variety you see in New England (supermarkets).”
While Weis sells the most popular Millers, Buds and Yuenglings. it’s focused on selling craft beers.
“Craft beers made up eight of the top 10 selling beers in the first weekend we were open, so we knew that was the kind of direction our customers were looking,” Sullivan said.
The Café, which opened with a selection of about 300 beers, now has 428, Sullivan said Monday.
Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board regulations require supermarket/convenience stores to sell food, have seating for 30, and provide a separate entrance and dedicated beer sales register.
But, unlike beer distributors, Weis sells beer on a convenient schedule that’s even more flexible than most taverns.
“We’re open 8 a.m. to midnight everyday except Sunday when we open 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.,” said Alex Schock, beverage manager. “I can imagine what this place will be like during NFL Sundays.”
Not all of the county’s 28 licensed beer distributors – among the more than 1,300 statewide – even open on Sunday.
The ones that do typically operate under the initial law that limited Sunday hours from noon to 5 p.m., despite a law change in 2012 that allows distributors to open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays.
Still, the distributors have an edge against competitors in other ways.
Most supermarkets selling beer in the state have an “R” restaurant license, which would allow for the sale of beer, wine or spirits. But the license given to supermarkets and convenience stores allow only the sale of up to two six-packs of beer or two individual beers for customers to consume at the supermarket cafe.
Since the state House balked this year at Gov. Corbett plan to issue 1,600 new liquor store licenses and auction the 600-plus state stores, supermarkets are forced to find expensive, existing licenses.
Chris Brand, Giant spokesman, noted there are few if any alcohol-sales licenses available at any given time or place. And the license transfers, especially between municipalities, are closely scrutinized and require state and local approval.
“Just finding a license is a key part of the process,” Brand said.
Brand said those uncontrollable variables decide when and where beer is sold at Giant. He said the relatively small size of the new Ephrata Giant precluded beer sales there.
The Weis Beer Café in Lititz is the chain’s 18th in the state over the past six years and is closest to its Wyomissing location in Spring Township,
It marks the 194th supermarket or convenience store to sell beer in Pennsylvania, said PLCB spokeswoman Stacy Kriedeman.
The companies most actively pursuing licenses to sell beer in Pennsylvania &tstr; including Weis , Giant, Wegman’s, and Sheetz &tstr; operate stores that sell it elsewhere.
Giant and Wegman’s each operate 11 beer-selling stores in Pennsylvania.
Giant opened its newest Beer Garden last week in Exton and Weis’ petition to open one in Conshohocken goes before the PLCB board today (Wednesday), Kriedeman said.
Patrick Burns is a staff writer for the Lititz Record Express. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 721-4455