HARRISBURG - From the same folks who brought you wines in supermarket vending machines comes this new offering: Bourbon with your bath soap. Gin with your gouda. Vodka with your vegetables.
Within the next few weeks, the state Liquor Control Board plans to begin stocking a select few of its so-called wine kiosks in supermarkets across the state with a few bottles of hard liquor as well.
The inclusion of spirits comes as the agency aims to give the consumer more convenience and better selection. Liquor officials are also hoping that, in the process, kiosks become a more profitable venture.
"I think the convenience factor is something that people want and have asked for," said Joe Conti, the LCB's chief executive officer. "I'm optimistic."
Critics counter that this experiment is yet another example of the agency's identity crisis as it tries to stave off privatization. Gov. Corbett, as well as House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), have been pushing to sell off the State Stores. Although there is no proposal in black and white, Turzai has promised he will unveil legislation by the summer.
"This is truly the LCB's perestroika strategy," said Matt Brouillette, who heads the Commonwealth Foundation, a libertarian think tank in Harrisburg, and is a strong supporter of privatization. "They're trying to say they can act like the private sector - but without privatization."
Over the last few years, the liquor board has embarked on an aggressive strategy to operate more like a private business and less like a heartless bureaucracy. And that is a 180-degree shift from the LCB's mission when Pennsylvania's liquor code was written in 1933, at the end of Prohibition.
The code was crafted to ensure that Pennsylvania would never again be graced by "open saloons," those lawless places where workingmen went to drink away their paychecks, traffic in stolen goods, and generally get into all kinds of trouble. The LCB was to be the cautious regulator, strictly controlling the flow of booze.
These days, the agency is spending tens of thousands of dollars to spiff up stores, boost its wine selection, and train its employees to be more customer-friendly. It has also opened upscale stores to cater to a more discriminating crowd.
Then there is the much-ballyhooed kiosk program.
It was launched last summer as a way to make it easier for consumers to do one-stop shopping: pick up their bottle of wine while at the grocery store.
But there have been problems.
First off, it took some time for shoppers to get used to purchasing wines from a machine that scanned their driver's licenses and made them blow into a Breathalyzer.
Then, just as customers were getting acclimated, the LCB abruptly shut the kiosks down last year right before Christmas - and the big holiday booze rush. The reason: mechanical problems (such as kiosks that took your money but failed to jettison your Merlot). The shutdown prompted state Auditor General Jack Wagner to launch an audit of how the kiosks are working and how much money they were making for the state. The results aren't in.
Since then, consumer confidence in the kiosks has lagged, along with sales in some spots, liquor officials acknowledge.
To date, the LCB has made just under $700,000 in sales from the machines, said Conti. After subtracting the costs associated with stocking and monitoring them - the kiosks are monitored by LCB employees in an off-premises call station - the agency ends up taking in about 10 to 20 percent of that amount.
But, said Conti, that is better than the agency fares in some of its bricks-and-mortar stores, which cost more to staff and operate.
And, he said, the technical glitches have been worked out and the machines are ready to accommodate the new push to stock them with liquor.
It's a pilot program. Only about a half-dozen of the 32 kiosks will carry both wine and hard liquor.
What kind of liquor? That will depend on where you live or shop, and what sells best there. Customers in and around Philadelphia tend to prefer clear liquors such as vodka, LCB officials said. The western counties like their liquor brown.
Asked if this is just another attempt to keep the armies of privatization at bay, Conti said: "I don't get into that."
Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks), who has historically opposed liquor expansion, called it "bad policy" and said it moves the agency further away from what should be its priority: strictly regulating alcohol.
"What kind of message is that sending?" Clymer asked. "I'll tell you what it's sending. The state is saying, 'Drink more! It's OK!' ... I don't see how we win as a society."