EDITORIAL - Liquor stickler: The ruling on beer shows a need for new laws

Written by Susan Mannella on .

Now that the state Supreme Court has ruled against the sale of takeout-only beer at a Sheetz convenience store, there’s no question that merely tweaking the liquor laws won’t allow Pennsylvanians to start buying six-packs the way most Americans do.

State legislators need to enact a complete overhaul, one that makes consumer convenience a priority.

There are two ways to buy takeout beer in the state — either by the case from licensed distributorships or by the six-pack from licensed restaurants, bars, pizzerias and delis.

It seemed like the state’s enforced inconvenience was easing when, in 2004, the Liquor Control Board allowed Sheetz’s flagship store in Altoona to sell takeout six-packs. The LCB decided Sheetz met all of the requirements for what’s called an eating place retail dispenser license. The beer side of the store was separate; it had its own cash register and it also sold food.

What set Sheetz apart, though, was it did not want to sell beer for consumption on the premises. And that’s where the court found the problem.

The liquor code says retail dispensers may sell beer "on the premises" and "with the privilege" of selling the equivalent of two six-packs to go. The state’s highest court agreed with Commonwealth Court that the LCB’s interpretation for Sheetz was inconsistent with the law because "the primary purpose of a retail dispenser is to engage in the sale of beer for on-premises consumption, and that providing beer for takeout sales was only secondary."

Now Sheetz must stop selling beer at its store unless it gets a new license. It was not alone in trying to get around state impediments while working within the law. The Wegmans supermarket chain has been selling six-packs under a restaurant license; Giant Eagle is seeking one for its stores at Robinson, Seven Fields, Pine and Camp Horne Road; Whole Foods would like to do the same in Eastern Pennsylvania.

Because their customers can sit down and have a beer before carrying their six-packs home, the legal objections by opponents are not the same. But the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania, motivated by self-preservation, is resisting these new competitors, too.

What Pennsylvanians need are logical liquor laws aimed at promoting competition and serving customers, while ensuring public safety. They shouldn’t need a law degree to figure out where to buy a few beers.

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