By Seth Daniel
When it comes to re-writing the rules for alcohol retailers, Everett seems to be at the center of the action, whether it’s brewers like Night Shift, retailers like Everett’s Total Wine & More location or the state’s Package Store Association, Everett has seemingly found itself at the center of the debate started by State Treasurer Deb Goldberg to try to modernize the state’s liquor laws.
Goldberg started the Task Force last summer in an effort to take a look at alcohol regulation and rules among many different perspectives – perhaps making changes that would result in an update for rules that in some cases have been in place since the 1930s.
One of the working groups in the Task Force was the Industry Improvements Working Group, and it was on that group where Total Wine, the Package Store Association and Night Shift had a seat at the table. That work wrapped up at the end of September, and recommendations to the larger Task Force have been submitted.
“It was a very thoughtful group and a very thoughtful process the Working Group went through,” said Ed Cooper of Total Wine & More, which has challenged the Commonwealth’s rules on retail alcohol sales. “We always are encouraged of the discussion or possibility of change. Change is good. Innovation is good. We are committed to making the case for the consumer and we know change takes time to come to be…This is a process of modernization and hopefully bringing the alcoholic beverages laws into the 21st Century, where they are now still in the 20th Century.”
In doing that, Total Wine & More has started a campaign to continue to push that agenda of change, dubbing it the Consumers First Initiative.
Part of that fight revolves around being able to offer coupons and loyalty cards.
Cooper, whose company has 170 stores in 20 states, entered into Everett a few years ago, and said they want to be able to offer customers things like coupons and loyalty cards.
“One way to help our customers to save money is through loyalty efforts that other retailers can and are allowed to do,” he said. “If you shop at CVS or Stop & Shop, you have a store card that saves you money. Why not when you’re at a brew pub, a restaurant/bar? You can be part of a restaurants loyalty program if you buy an appetizer, an entrée or dessert, but not if you buy a beer or glass of wine. You’re out of luck with that. It’s the same with us.”
He said customers tell them all the time that they are looking to have more flexibility, but Cooper said they just can’t offer such things due to the rules and laws of the state.
“Customers say it’s like we’re still in 1932,” he said. “The rules and laws for alcohol are from a much different time and they stifle innovation. It’s a shame.”
On the other side of the table is a completely different viewpoint, that being of the state’s Package Store Retailers Association – which represents smaller liquor stores. They are in direct competition with Total Wine and have fought many of their suggestions – saying the suggestions are predatory.
“Naturally, this corporate-funded smoke-and-mirrors campaign does not discuss how diminishment or elimination of existing controls on alcohol will impact public health and safety protections for families across the Commonwealth,” wrote Frank Anzalotti, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Store Association. “There is no talk of whether additional licenses for big box retailers will lead to new jobs that offer a living wage with benefits or minimum hourly pay without health insurance. There is no discussion of whether it makes sense to reward large, national corporations that will export millions of dollars out-of-state at the expense of smaller, locally-owned ‘Main Street’ businesses that continue to thrive across Everett.”
Anzalotti said he believes the Commonwealth will be able to see through the arguments by Total Wine, and keep limits on retail package store licenses, prohibitions on markdowns of bulk purchases and other safeguards.
“This will ensure that Massachusetts will continue to provide appropriate safeguards for residents while protecting local businesses from out-of-state predators,” he wrote.
Beyond the retail sphere, on the producer end, Everett has become a bastion for brewing and distilling, and so it was no surprise that one of its breweries also had a seat at the table.
Night Shift Co-Founder Rob Burns spent time with the Working Group as well, dealing mostly with their issue regarding wholesalers and distributors. That’s a relationship that’s often been described for producers as a marriage without the possibility of divorce – and it has become frustrating for folks like Night Shift.
“The main thing we were concerned about was the pay-to-play system,” he said, which became a major reason they started their own distribution company several years ago. “Everyone wants to play by the same set of rules. We wanted to see if we could get more clear and concise rules.”
While that was the major concern, other smaller things were brought up, such as what is a conflict of interest. Often times, the brewery would want to put umbrellas on the patio that were given to them by sponsors. However, when seeking direction, the rules weren’t clear about how many they could use. It is, they said, hard to tell what is a violation and what isn’t.
“They will say one is ok, three is okay, eight is iffy and 12 is bad,” he said. How do I know what is bad? I’m told eight is ok and 12 is not. How do we determine that? What are the boundaries?”
That and many other such regulations enforced by the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) are the crux of what confuses breweries and other producers, Burns said. One of the key recommendations they made was to get more funding for the ABCC to be able to do more administrative and enforcement work.
“One of the challenges is the ABCC is underfunded,” said Burns. “They have had $600,000 cut. We have a building boom in the area and more liquor licenses and more breweries than ever and fewer and fewer people to regulate this…To get going in the business is not that tough. It’s the level of paperwork and the little nuances that are left up to interpretation. It’s challenging when you call the ABCC with a question and they’re not sure either. Most brewers are just law-abiding citizens and just want to follow the playbook.”
Goldberg is considering all of the recommendations, including those submitted by the contingent from Everett. She and the Task Force are expected to come out with some final recommendations before the end of the year.