July 6, 2005

Law Allows Pennsylvania Beer Distributors to Open on Sundays

Jul. 6--For all his beer-drinking life -- 11 of his 32 years -- Jason Fretti of Macungie has waited for this.

Sunday hours at the beer store.

Finally, lawmakers saw it his way. With Gov. Ed Rendell's signature, Pennsylvania law will change in 60 days to allow beer distributors to open noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays.

"We're going to have the opportunity to save money instead of being gouged," said Fretti, weary of paying premium prices for six-packs of non-premium beer at bars and restaurants -- until now, the only places in state a thirsty Pennsylvanian could buy Sunday suds.

Fretti, like most consumers, likes having options. Instead of buying his keg on Saturday for a Sunday get-together and storing it on ice in the garage, he will be able to buy it cold on the day of the party.

But for beer sellers, who will have to pay $100 for a Sunday sales license, the change is a mixed blessing. They stand to sell more beer but lose a day off -- for many, their only day off.

Mike Gentis, who owns the Hi-Way restaurant in North Whitehall Township and the adjacent Laurys Station Beverage Co., thinks society has suffered since the old rules against Sunday commerce -- written and unwritten -- began falling to an economy that demands instant access all the time.

That pressure convinced the state to launch Sunday sales at a portion of its wine and liquor shops. Supporters of the new beer law pointed to the success of that program in pushing the change.

"I think Sunday should be a day to rest," Gentis said. "It should be closed the way it was before -- the malls, the stores."

Competition will probably compel Gentis to open on Sundays, but at least one area beer distributor plans to reject the prevailing economic wisdom by keeping the doors closed.

"It's my only day with my family. It's a church and family day," said Mona Safi, a mother of three who owns of The Beer Man in Whitehall Township.

Jim Schular, who co-owns Budget Beverage on Tilghman Street in Allentown with partner Bob Jellen, said he appreciates such sentiments. But business is business, and merchants who aren't around when the customers want them are taking a mighty risk.

"Running a business, you have to be open Sunday," he said. "If you look around, most retail businesses are open Sunday. I guess we have to jump on the wagon. People are busy today, they need hours.

"We came here four years ago and we always thought that one day we might have to be open Sunday. As far as states go, it's time Pennsylvania got on board with other states. It seems we're in the dark ages when it comes to the [Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board] and servicing people."

Previous efforts to institute Sunday beer sales failed because of opposition from restaurateurs and tavern owners who did not want to lose revenue from six-pack sales. To appease them, lawmakers raised the discount they get when buying wine and spirits from the liquor control board from 7 percent to 10 percent.

Even with the change, Pennsylvania's booze-sales system remains among the nation's most unwieldy. Customers have to go one place for a six-pack, another for wine and spirits and another for cases or kegs of beer.

When Schular explains this to out-of-staters, "They give you that deer in the headlights look, like 'You've got to be kidding,'" he said. "There's a lot of people moving here from different states who aren't used to it."


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