HARRISBURG -- The state Liquor Control Board, which is often the target of public criticism, wants to be more "customer friendly."
On the heels of its largest sales year ever, the agency said yesterday it is moving forward with two new ways to sell wine to the public, through small boutique stores and machine dispensers.
But its plans have raised concerns from Gov. Ed Rendell, some restaurant owners and some state legislators.
The board has a plan to put automated "wine kiosks" in up to 100 supermarkets and larger grocery stores around the state, said Chairman Patrick J. Stapleton, who testified before Senate and House committees that oversee wine and liquor sales.
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Each kiosk is several feet wide and about 10 feet high. They would vend white and red wines and would be located in supermarkets that don't currently have LCB "one-stop shops" within them, where both wine and liquor are sold. Nineteen supermarkets in the state now have one-stop LCB stores, which is an effort to let consumers buy wine and spirits at the same place they buy food.
To buy wine from an unmanned kiosk, a buyer would have to insert his or her driver's license to prove the purchaser is the legal age of 21. If so, the would-be buyer would then have to breathe into a breath-testing device in the kiosk. If the amount of alcohol in his breath shows he is inebriated, the sale won't go through.
Pennsylvania is often viewed as lagging behind other states when it comes to the convenience of consumers, who must buy beer at distributors and wine or alcohol at state stores. But it would be the first state to use this kiosk system, as far as LCB officials know.
The company with a contract to provide the kiosks is called Simple Brands LLC, based in Conshohocken, outside Philadelphia. "It's a new company and has not sold the kiosks anywhere else," said board spokesman Nick Hays.
The governor has some concerns about the new technology, said spokesman Chuck Ardo. If the governor is satisfied, the kiosks could begin appearing this fall, he said. The LCB is an independent state agency, but its members are named by the governor, so he has influence.
The other initiative is called "LCB boutique wine stores," which would be small -- just 500 to 1,000 square feet in size -- and would be located in "high-end, gourmet grocery stores." That has been done for decades in small groceries in Italy and is now being duplicated in states such as California and New York, said Mr. Stapleton and Joe Conti, a former state senator who is LCB chief executive officer.
So far, only one boutique location is definite, in subletted space in a small Italian market in Center City, Philadelphia, Mr. Stapleton said. But there could be between six and 12 statewide over the next five years, mainly in larger urban areas such as Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, he said. Up to 150 different types of wine would be sold in a boutique store.
In the Pittsburgh area, locations being considered for boutiques include Lidia's in the Strip District and McGinnis Sisters groceries.
The Pennsylvania Restaurant Association is opposed to the idea, however, claiming it will create an unfair playing field for the lucky groceries that get a boutique wine store.
Association members told legislators yesterday that the boutique wine store planned for Downtown Philadelphia has 26 seats, where people can sit and eat the cheeses, breads and deli meats they buy. It wouldn't take much to turn it into a small cafe or restaurant where people could drink wine with their sandwiches, opponents said.
"This plan is unfair and misguided," said association Chairman Bill Kohl.
Mr. Conti said there are 24,000 restaurants in the state, and he didn't see how 12 boutique stores would hurt them.
At the urging of Rep. Robert Donatucci, D-Philadelphia, the state House recently approved a measure to halt the boutique idea. That legislation still needs Senate approval.
Harrisburg Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at email@example.com or 717-787-4254.