HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Friday upheld sales of beer at Wegmans stores across the state, potentially opening the door for beer sales at other supermarkets and big retailers.
In a unanimous decision, the seven justices found that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board properly granted licenses to Wegmans Food Market Inc. to sell beer at eating areas in its supermarkets.
The stores have eat-in cafes that meet the liquor-code requirements to get restaurant licenses and sell beer to be consumed on the premises as well as to sell six-packs to go, the court ruled.
The justices noted that their decision "may foreshadow the expansion of the practice of large businesses opening restaurants within their facilities."
But, Justice Max Baer wrote in the opinion, "it is for the legislature, not this court, to determine whether to curtail such practice."
The decision, rejecting a challenge brought by a trade group for beer distributors, comes amid renewed debate about how to modernize Pennsylvania's antiquated alcoholic-beverage laws. Gov.-elect Tom Corbett has said he wants to privatize the State Stores that sell wine and liquor.
The Malt Beverage Distributors Association, which represents 450 beer distributors across the state, had challenged Wegmans' license on a number of grounds.
The group says letting Wegmans sell beer would allow other supermarkets and big retailers to horn in on the beer-selling trade by establishing their own eating areas and applying for licenses to serve beer and sell six-packs.
That, the association warned, could put beer distributorships - many of them small mom-and-pop operations - out of business.
Consumers in Pennsylvania now buy beer by the case from distributors; they can also buy up to two six-packs at bars, often at marked-up prices. At Wegmans - or any other retail store with a license to sell beer - customers can buy only up to two six-packs as well. They cannot buy cases there.
"We are disappointed," said Mary Lou Hogan, executive secretary of the distributors association. She said the group would consider its next move, but she acknowledged that, in terms of a legal remedy, it was "at the end of the road."
Though Hogan would not make any predictions about whether other supermarkets and chain stores would seek to sell beer, she said: "I don't see what would stop them."
She may be right.
The Wegmans case was closely monitored by other chain food stores in Pennsylvania. Chris Brand, a spokesman for Giant Food Stores of Carlisle, Pa., said Friday that Giant recently received a liquor license from the PLCB to open a restaurant in its Bartonsville store in the Poconos.
Brand said Giant was pleased with the decision and was exploring the possibility of putting restaurants in other stores in its chain. The company operates 137 stores in Pennsylvania, 42 of them in the southeast.
As for Wegmans, beer is now sold at all 14 of its Pennsylvania locations. Its stores in Collegeville and Malvern have full bars.
"We are delighted that in a unanimous decision the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the [LCB's] decision to grant us licenses for our Market Cafe restaurants," said Jo Natale, spokesperson for Wegmans, based in Rochester, N.Y. "It means we can continue to do what our customers have wanted us to do all along."
The economic stakes are high when it comes to beer sales.
According to another trade group, the Pennsylvania Beer Wholesalers Association, the impact of beer-related businesses on the state's economy is nearly $7 billion annually. The group says the beer industry employs 80,873 workers.
Even as they fret over the impact of Friday's decision, beer distributors may find a friend in State Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks).
Clymer, long a foe of expanded sales of alcoholic drinks, seemed to take a cue from Justice Baer's mention of the legislature's role. In an interview Friday, Clymer said he would look closely at the state liquor code to determine whether the court's action could be reversed through legislation.
He said he saw the court's decision as chipping away at the state's control over alcohol sales - a system that allows purchases of wine and hard liquor only at stores run by the state.
"The General Assembly should have oversight about where a product is sold or not sold," Clymer said. "That's why we have State Stores."