A convenience store to sell beer in Pa.

Sheetz's location in Altoona gets rare permission because of how it is designed

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In another move that chips away at the state's stranglehold on beer and liquor sales, Sheetz Inc. has been cleared to sell takeout beer at its super-sized convenience store and restaurant in Altoona.

Starting this afternoon, it will become one of the first gas station convenience stores in Pennsylvania permitted to sell beer. It can do so because the gas station is segregated from the on-site restaurant, which technically is a separate business.

The 55-year-old company, which has grown both in sales and popularity over the last decade thanks to its made-to-order sandwiches, already can sell beer at locations in West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland and Virginia.

But at its nearly 200 Pennsylvania locations, beer has been off limits because of the commonwealth's constraining liquor bylaws. That will change shortly after 1:30 p.m. today, when Chief Executive Officer Stan Sheetz will be on hand to figuratively cut the ribbon on the 10,000-square-foot convenience store and restaurant. Beer sales will begin immediately after the formal announcement is made.

There's a limit of two six-packs per customer, but customers also can also buy 40-ounce brews. They can't, however, buy beer from the restaurant's drive-thru.

"It's not like any of our other stores," said Monica Jones, company spokeswoman.

This Sheetz, flagship of the Altoona-based company's stable of Pennsylvania locations, has indoor seating for up to 65, exceeding the state requirement that delis selling beer have seating for at least 30.

As of now, it's the only Sheetz in the state that can sell beer, and Ms. Jones said the chain has no immediate plans to build similarly sized stores elsewhere.

For Sheetz, and for the state of Pennsylvania, this is a big deal.

In other states, beer can be sold just about anywhere, including gas station convenience stores.

But in Pennsylvania, six-packs typically can be sold only by bars and delis.

Lately, though, nontraditional outlets have been trying to chip away at the market restriction by opening delis and cafes within or adjacent to an existing business. A supermarket with a built-in cafe, for example, is selling beer in the Poconos, and other supermarket chains in the Philadelphia and Allentown areas hope soon to be able to do the same thing.

A dozen years ago, a Wawa convenience store in West Philadelphia was permitted to sell beer, which is why Sheetz is not the first Pennsylvania convenience store to do so. But the Wawa store has since sold its license.

Sheetz originally sought the six-pack license -- known under the liquor code as an "eating place malt license" -- in 2004, when it asked the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to approve the transfer of the license to Sheetz from a nearby bar and grill.

The LCB approved a conditional license in September 2004, meaning Sheetz had to meet certain conditions of the law before it would be able to sell beer. One was that the store fortify the separation between the gas station and the restaurant section, since the liquor code forbids beer sales at any business where "sale of liquid fuel or oil is conducted."

In the intervening time, protesters tried to stop the transfer, saying it could lead to increased rates of underage drinking. One opponent, the Rev. Gary Dull, pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Altoona, said he submitted a petition bearing 6,700 signatures to the Liquor Control Board.

The Malt Beverage Distributors Association also tried to stop the store from selling beer, and Commonwealth Court threw distributors a bone in August 2005 when it ruled that the LCB must consider the malt group's objections when considering the Sheetz licensing case.

But eventually that legal challenge failed, as did the moral challenge presented by Mr. Dull.

"I was disappointed," he said yesterday.

"A convenience store like that is a family store. You have children of every age going into it. The sale of beer should be left to the beer distributors and the taverns."

At Sheetz locations in other states, alcohol accounts for 5 percent to 8 percent of sales.

Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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