by Alix Pianin
Current Staff Writer
The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board announced last month that it intends to adopt a series of regulations to more firmly define what constitutes a grocery store — and, by extension, which retailers qualify for a grocery license to sell beer and wine from their stores. A hearing on the proposal is scheduled for next week.
The new regulations are a result of the Omnibus Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Emergency Amendment Act, an update to city alcohol laws that took effect in January. A provision in the act required the board to settle on the definition of a grocery store, which it released Jan. 16.
A city moratorium on Class B licenses — for off-premises consumption — allows grocery stores to apply for an exemption in order to specify how much of a store must be devoted to food sales to qualify. But it remains to be seen whether a Van Ness Walgreens and Woodley Park CVS pharmacy, both of which applied for Class B liquor licenses last year, will ultimately be labeled as grocery stores, elected officials said.
Last February the Van Ness/North Cleveland Park advisory neighborhood commission voted to protest an exemption application from Walgreens, located at 4225 Connecticut Ave. Some Woodley Park residents are pursuing litigation with the CVS at 2601 Connecticut Ave., according to advisory neighborhood commissioner Lee Brian Reba, who declined to comment further.
The proposed rules stipulate that a “full-service grocery store” must offer four out of five specific types of products at any given time: fresh, uncooked or unprocessed meat, poultry or fish; fresh, uncooked or unprocessed fruits or vegetables; dairy products; breads, cereals or baked goods; or dry groceries, such as coffee, flour and whole grains.
To gain full-grocery status, a store must devote either at least 50 percent of its total retail space to four of the five listed product categories, or 6,000 square feet or more to the listed products, among other requirements. Under this proposal, the new definitions would only apply to license applications that are pending now or issued after Jan. 14, when the omnibus act went into effect. The Walgreens and CVS applications fall into the pending category, said Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration spokesperson William Hager.
Vendors sometimes apply for the exemption as a way to get a liquor license even if their establishments don’t seem to be full grocery stores, said Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh. The exemption was created in an emergency act in 2000 to “encourage high quality grocery stores to locate new stores in the District of Columbia,” according to the resolution, and “does not apply to corner stores or convenience stores,” a D.C. Council report added later.
Cheh testified before the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board in December to protest the Walgreens application, which she argued should not be classified as a grocery store because it does not sell enough food products. “What bothered me was not so much this particular store, but whether we were following the law or not,” Cheh said in an interview. “When [constituents] brought this to my attention, I had to agree this really was not following the legislation.”
These new regulations, Cheh said, “probably capture the legislative intent … certainly a lot better than the free-form approach [alcohol officials] were taking earlier.”
One ongoing question may be how to classify vendors that provide a variety of services beyond traditional drug or grocery stores. For example, many grocery stores now have pharmacies as well, and may take a larger share of their earnings from those services rather than their food sales. Another question may be how big-box stores such as Walmart should fit into these proposals — places that may include full-service grocery stores but still might not match the specific square footage or food sales requirements.
Van Ness/North Cleveland Park advisory neighborhood commission chair Adam Tope criticized the proposed rules as unclear.
“Frankly, this definition is gibberish and doesn’t make much sense,” Tope said. “I don’t think it really addresses the big issue of whether a Walgreens should have a liquor license.”
Tope was also unsure whether Walgreens would qualify as a full-service grocery store under these limits. Cheh said she didn’t know where Walgreens would fall, either. But she said the proposed rules were broader than she might have expected.
“The regulations themselves might be a little more general than what the legislation anticipated, but at least it’s not a kind of, ‘Well, they sell crackers, that’s good enough,’” Cheh said.
The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board will take comments on the proposed rules and hold a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. Feb. 28 in the Board Hearing Room at 2000 14th St. NW. To testify, call 202-442-4456 or email firstname.lastname@example.org by Feb. 22.
Reprinted, with permission, from the February 20th issue of the Northwest Current.