Indiana convenience store finds loophole to sell cold beer
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Indiana convenience store sells cold beer — as a restaurant
By Robert King

One of the longstanding assumptions for beer buyers in Indiana is that the only beer to be found in a convenience store is warm beer.

But the Indiana-based Ricker's convenience store chain, which has 56 stores across the state, recently began challenging that assumption by selling cold beer at stores in Columbus and Sheridan. It did so by obtaining alcohol permits typically assigned to restaurants.

The move has prompted objections from the liquor store industry — which has long been the sole source of cold beer for carryout — and raised the blood pressure of some key lawmakers in the Indiana Statehouse who are vowing to pass legislation to make sure the convenience store beer stays warm.

Jay Ricker, head of the family-owned chain, said he's trying to grow his business and prepare for a future when cigarette and gas sales may not be enough to be able to sustain a convenience store. But, he said it's obvious this has sparked yet another skirmish in the alcohol war that in recent years has mostly focused on pitched fights over Sunday sales.
The cold beer clash, Ricker said, "has turned into a real firestorm."

For Ricker's, diversifying his business has meant — for the past couple of years — serving made-to-order Tex-Mex food such as burritos, quesadillas and nachos and in restaurant settings within his stores. To make it happen, Ricker's has remodeled some old stores and built new ones. Ricker said some customers began asking why they couldn't get a cold beer with their burrito.

He and other convenience store owners have been trying to get into the cold beer business for years, only to be met with legislative and courtroom disappointment. But the success of the in-store restaurants raised the possibility of a new avenue: restaurant alcohol permits. His chain's lawyers began looking at the liquor laws and found these in-store restaurants checked all the boxes needed to qualify, including food sales of $200,000 and dining room seating capacity of at least 25. The company applied for the restaurant alcohol permits, went through public hearings and gained the approval of the Indiana Alcohol & Tobacco Commission.
The experiment began three weeks ago at the Ricker's store in Columbus and earlier this week in Sheridan.

At both locations, dining room customers can order a cold one with their meal and have it delivered to their table. They can also order a cold six-pack or a bottle of liquor for consumption outside the restaurant. But to comply with the law, it must be delivered to the table.

The liquor store industry sees the maneuver as just another attempt by the convenience stores to cut into an area that's been its domain for decades.

"They are just thumbing their noses in terms of the intent of Indiana’s laws," said Patrick Tamm, president of the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers. "They got together with their lawyers and tried to figure out a way to achieve their objective and they are trying to do that.

"A gas station is a gas station is a gas station."

The political objections came Thursday when House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, both took swipes at the Indiana Alcohol & Tobacco Commission for granting approval to Ricker's for the new endeavor.

"It goes against long-term state policy," Long said.

Both lawmakers said would try to close the loophole, most likely by amending another bill currently before the legislature. "We're going to change the law to what the law really is," Bosma said.

The Alcohol & Tobacco Commission declined Thursday to offer a comment, citing the likelihood of new legislation.
Liquor stores, said Tamm, have maintained the exclusive right to cold carryout beer sales because they are subject to additional regulations that other retailers are not. Among other things, they can't sell cold water or soda. They can't be located in unincorporated areas. Their clerks must get special training. These rules and others help curb underage drinking, Tamm said, and serve the public's interest.

But convenience store industry leaders say the move by Ricker's is just the latest step for an industry trying to compete in a world where big-box stores sell food and alcohol, where alcohol is so pervasive that it can be purchased in some movie theaters.

“Businesses change over time. We used to be gas stations. We used to have repair shops. Then we became convenience stores as we replaced the small neighborhood grocery stores," said Scot Imus, executive director of the Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association. "Now the new trend is to become a full restaurant much like a Qdoba or a Chipotle — made to order, bring it to your table when it’s done."

Imus said Ricker's isn't the first convenience store to go this route — that there are "a handful" of others around the state that gained the same alcohol permit. The quick legislative reaction to Ricker's effort isn't coming because of public outrage, he said, but by the legislature getting involved in "allocation of market share."

"They are simply protecting the liquor store industry from any hint of competition."

Ricker said his chain followed the state's rules and has passed its initial state inspections. He'd like to expand the new concept to other stores big enough to accommodate the restaurant tables. But now he's bracing for a move by lawmakers that he fears could undercut his business.

"For the liquor lobby to apply pressure to keep their monopoly is just unAmerican," Ricker said. "It's not fair."

Evansville Courier & Press reporter Kaitlin Lange contributed to this story.