By Ramsey Khalifeh
Boston University News Service
A silent battle has been ensuing between major grocery corporations and local liquor organizations in the Massachusetts legislature over the past few years. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, arms were dropped. But the time for confrontation is approaching.
On Nov. 8, Massachusetts voters will flock to their local polling places for the upcoming midterm election. Question three on the ballot will ask voters to decide on a bill that will adjust current liquor license laws.
The bill proposes to double the amount of beer and wine licenses a person or business can have and reduce the number of full hard liquor licenses from nine to seven. It will also criminalize self checkout kiosks for alcohol, increase fines, and allow sellers to accept out of state identification for the purchasing of alcohol.
“A vote yes safely expands consumer convenience in a way that supports local businesses across the state,” said Robert Mellion, the co-drafter of question three and executive general counsel to the Massachusetts Package Stores Association.
The introduction of this bill was out of necessity, Mellion said during a phone interview, a defense against large corporations who have been pushing for the expansion of liquor licenses for many years.
“This is a compromise,” Mellion said. “If we didn’t have to, we wouldn’t be doing this.”
In 2019, Cumberland Farms, a national chain of convenience stores with over 100 locations in Massachusetts, introduced a bill that allowed businesses to receive unlimited licenses to sell beer and wine. This allowed them to expand their chains across the state. Mellion fears it would give big businesses, such as Target and Walmart, too much power and potentially put independently owned liquor stores out of business.
States across the country are currently facing the same phenomenon: larger corporations trying to expand their businesses to sell liquor and beat out competition. In Colorado, voters are preparing to decide in their midterm election if grocery stores will be allowed to sell wine — they are currently limited to beer only. Similar initiatives are happening in Connecticut and Texas.
“I’m fearful about what happens in Colorado,” Mellion said. “I’m fearful for the small businesses in that state, I think they’re going to get wiped out.”
Food Stores for Consumer Choice, an organization which represents major grocery stores both in Massachusetts and nationally, believe the proposed bill is unfair.
According to the Massachusetts Secretary of State website, arguments against the bill believe it will create injustice against retailers who sell more than alcohol, eliminate convenient point of sale systems, and disfavors those with less money.
Michael Garon, a resident of Brookline, is in favor of expanding consumer choice, both in his neighborhood and for all Massachusetts residents.
“I support having consumer choice and I like the idea of restaurants and local businesses being able to sell liquor,” Garon said. “[However] I don’t feel like I need access to more or easier access to more alcohol.”
For Garon, a father of two high school-aged children, other aspects of the bill are more in his favor when it comes to limiting self-checkout and increasing business penalties for selling to minors
“I don’t want government to be overbearing and make really onerous laws. [At] the same time, if liquor is literally everywhere and it’s super easy for minors to get, I don’t love that, I don’t love the message it sends,” Garon said.
For some local business owners, the proposed bill may not target them at all.
Wine Press, a small business specialty wine and beer store with locations in Brookline and Fenway, may not see any changes with how they operate. Since the bill decreases full liquor licenses per business, this clause doesn’t apply to them since they don’t sell spirits.
“For us, we’re trying to be the best of what our neighborhoods need us to be,” said Aaron Mehta, the owner of Wine Press, in an interview tucked away in the back room of their Brookline location. Although Wine Press’ strategy isn’t to expand, Mehta said he appreciates the potential changes in question three.
“Where I appreciate the spirit of this initiative, is that even though we’re wine focused and the idea is to expand beer and wine, essentially for grocery stores, they are trying to limit the number of places where you can buy alcohol,” Mehta said. “And I think in the spirit of creating small business success, I think that’s important.”
However for Mehta, who is a member of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, the message this bill sends may ultimately not be in his best interest.
“This ballot is trying to do something positive for small businesses. But it’s only because they’re very scared of what the alternative is, and I don’t like making a decision out of fear,” Mehta said. “That’s what it smells like to me.”