Left to right, Michael Reay, owner of Wickford Package Store, Frank Fede, owner of Kingstown Liquor Mart, and Nicholas Fede, director of the Rhode Island Liquor Operators Collaborative, speak against a bill to expand beer and wine sales to grocery stores Tuesday at the State House. (Photo by Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — Nayan Patel’s version of the American dream is a 5,000-square-foot liquor store off Route 122 in Cumberland.
An Indian immigrant whose family moved to the U.S. when he was 7, Patel views his business, Paul’s Fine Wine and Spirits, as the tangible result of years of hard work.
“We poured sweat, and many tears into this project, not to mention a $2 million dollar loan,” Patel said, speaking to a panel of lawmakers Tuesday.
Yet Patel fears his business dreams won’t survive if grocery and convenience stores are allowed to sell beer and wine. And it’s not just his dream that dies, he said, but a small business — a job creator and community presence — that stands to lose out to corporate competitors like Stop & Shop and Cumberland Farms.
Patel was among the dozens of local liquor store owners crowded into an airless State House hearing room Tuesday to voice opposition to a proposal that would offer beer and wine licenses to grocery stores, convenience stores and markets. The bill introduced by Deputy Majority Leader William O’Brien, a North Providence Democrat, mirrors legislation introduced by another state representative last year, which failed to advance out of committee.
Similar concerns were reiterated to the Rhode Island House Corporations Committee members with liquor store owners framing the legislation as a hit to small business.
Patel said he would lose 50% of his revenue to grocery store competitors if the bill passed.
“We can’t compete with billionaires,” Patel said.
Others spoke of losing their homes, of retirement dreams dashed and children’s education savings emptied. Not to mention the employees who work for them.
“The passage of such legislation will bankrupt small, local liquor store owners as well as put the over 2,000-3,000 people they employ out of a job,” said Nicholas Fede Jr., director of the Rhode Island Liquor Operators Collaborative whose family owns Kingstown Liquor Mart in North Kingstown.
“This bill is a job-killer,” Fede added.
Although no one spoke in support of O’Brien’s bill on Tuesday, liquor store owners attempted to head off any arguments about the benefits of his proposal. Shifting where beer and wine can be sold will not increase tax revenue for the state or create more jobs, Patel said.
We can’t compete with billionaires.
– Nayan Patel, owner of Paul’s Fine Wine and Spirits in Cumberland
That Rhode Island is one of few states that doesn’t sell beer or wine outside of liquor stores, was not a compelling argument to Mike Bogolawski, who owns Colonial Liquors in Pawtucket.
“In a state our size, we don’t need it,” Bogolawski said, adding that studies show a rise in underage drinking when alcohol is more readily available.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Community Prevention Task Force recommends states limit how many places can sell alcohol to “prevent excessive drinking.” But the CDC recommendations don’t specifically say selling beer and wine in grocery stores increases drinking problems.
And while local liquor store owners insist they will see their profits cut substantially if the bill is approved, at least one study suggests otherwise. A February 2021 study out of Colorado State University found that foot traffic in liquor stores in Colorado and Kansas dropped just 5% after those states started letting craft brewers sell their beers in grocery stores.
Connecticut shoppers can already pick up a six-pack while in the grocery; a proposal this year to add wine to grocery stores was declared dead Tuesday after failing to advance out of committee in time, according to various news outlets.
Alaska, Delaware, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania are the only other states where liquor stores were the only retailers allowed to sell alcohol as of 2021, according to data from the Beverage Information Group shared with Rhode Island Current. However, many other states, including Massachusetts, have additional limits on the number of licenses or types of alcohol that can be sold in grocery stores, gas stations and drug stores, according to the Beverage Information Group.
O’Brien’s bill includes a $500 to $1,000 annual licensing fee for grocery stores, markets and convenience stores that want to sell beer and wine. As proposed, beer and wine sales in these places would be subject to existing liquor laws restricting sales to certain times.
The House Corporations Committee has not yet scheduled a vote on the bill. There was no Senate companion bill as of Wednesday.
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