ANDERSON, Ind. — Having a foodservice operation has helped two Ricker's convenience stores in Indiana add cold beer sales despite a state law limiting such sales to liquor stores and restaurants.
According to the Indianapolis Star, the convenience store chain applied for and received alcohol permits typically assigned to restaurants for its locations in Columbus and Sheridan because of the stores' food offerings.
Jay Ricker, founder of the family-owned Ricker Oil Co., 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.
However, the move is not sitting well with the state's liquor store industry, which has been the sole source of cold beer for carryout, the news outlet said. Some state legislators are also vowing to pass legislation to limit c-store beer sales to warm beer only.
The cold beer disagreement, Ricker said, "has turned into a real firestorm."
Ricker's has diversified its business with made-to-order Tex-Mex food such as burritos, quesadillas and nachos and in restaurant settings within the chain's stores.
The chain has remodeled some old stores and built new ones to accommodate foodservice, and according to Ricker, some customers began asking why they couldn't get a cold beer with their burrito.
Indiana convenience stores have been fighting for the right to sell cold beer for several years. The Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association filed a lawsuit in May 2013, claiming that Indiana's alcohol law favors one class of retailers over another in violation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
However, a federal judge threw out the lawsuit in June 2014. In his 34-page ruling, Judge Richard Young upheld state law that only allows package liquor stores to sell beer at "chilled" temperatures, while all other retailers must sell it at room temperature, as CSNews Online previously reported.
The convenience industry lost a subsequent appeal in December 2015.
Now, the growth of the foodservice category has opened a new avenue for retailers like Ricker's.
According to the Indianapolis Star, the company'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 test 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 beer with their meal and have it delivered to their table.
Customers can also order a cold six-pack of beer or a bottle of liquor for consumption outside the restaurant. But to comply with the law, it must be delivered to the table, the report added.
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," Patrick Tamm, president of the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers, told the news outlet. "They got together with their lawyers and tried to figure out a way to achieve their objective and they are trying to do that."
On March 23, House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis), and Senate President David Long (R-Fort Wayne) spoke out against the permits. "It goes against long-term state policy," Long said.
According to the report, the lawmakers said they 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 to offer a comment, citing the likelihood of new legislation.
Anderson-based Ricker's operates 56 convenience stores in Indiana.