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Beverages

Sing a Song of Six-Packs

Mixing it up in Pennsylvania

PITTSBURGH -- Pennsylvania is infamous for making consumers buy beer by the case, and until recently, never on Sunday, unless purchased from a bar. A bar legally may sell a consumer up to two six-packs, but it's usually for a higher price than at a convenience or grocery store. Now another option is becoming more available to Western Pennsylvanians, said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazettesix-pack shops, where they can shop for not only a six- or 12-pack, but also individual bottles, including mixed packs, from a variety of brands.

At Three Sons Dogs & Suds [image-nocss] in Pine, a hot dog shoppe and six-pack store that opened at the end of in May, beer customers can choose from more than 420 different brews, said the report. Individual bottles and cans are priced according to colored stickers and displayed in a bank of coolers with more mainstream six-packs. Shelves hold more six-packs and other special packages Pennsylvania shoppers do not usually see, such as gift boxes.

Three Sons and similar establishments in the region operate on what the state calls eating place retail dispenser licenses, or E licenses. Like more common restaurant, or R licenses, these enable eateries to sell less-than-case quantities of beer to go. The E license allows an eatery with at least 300 square feet of space and seating for 30 to sell up to 192 ounces of malt beverages only (no wine or liquor as is allowed with R licenses).

The E license is not new. Nor are six-pack shops. What is new is how more entrepreneurs are using E and R licenses to open retail businesses that broaden Pittsburghers' access to many more and better beers to go, the report said.

Bill Sukitch, who named Three Sons in honor of his boys, the Post-Gazette said, is a veteran of the beer business who saw how well six-pack shops did in the eastern part of the state, where they are still more common. Not having to buy an entire case is only part of the appeal, Sukitch told the newspaper, because most of his customers also like to be able to experiment with this huge variety of craft brews. Most brands can be mixed in six-packs that cost $8.99, $10.99 or $12.99. Or a customer can take home a single bottle, or drink it there.

This new wave in beer retailing is being driven by consumers, Tony Knipling, a salesperson with Vecenie Distributing Co., Millvale, told the paper. Its website, www.beersince1933.com, lists better beer retailers, including what he said is a growing list of 20 six-pack shops, including longtime landmarks such as Kazansky's Deli, Squirrel Hill. While domestic beer sales have been flat, craft beer sales continue to climb, he said. It's all about experimenting.

Another new place is The Beer Store, Moon, which opened in April in the space above the Trivia Pub, with which it shares an R liquor license. Beer Store proprietor Frank Cullen said people who discover his 400-plus brews equate it to being in a candy store.' They can't believe the selection." One of his inspirations was D's SixPax & Dogz, which opened on an E license in Regent Square at the end of 1999 and has since done a booming business in good beer and good hot dogs. It is expanding into the space next door, which will soon open with a walk-in self-serve, six-pack cooler and self-serve draft beer, the report said.

Also expanding is the Pittsburgh Bottleshop Caf a, Collier, which opened in April 2004, and offers some 250 beers. Owner Mark Davis said he is exceeded his volume and profit goals by more than 300%. But more people than he expected pick their bottles from the coolers and drink them there, so he is creating a new dining room that should open later this month.

Fat Head's Saloon on the South Side got into the good-beer-to-go act a year ago when it opened the 1807 Beer Union Six Pack Shop upstairs, said the report. Customers use custom cardboard holders to make up from more than 200 brands their own pack for $14.95 (the second is $9.95).

Chuck Mohan, who in April opened a six-pack shop next to his Mohan's Restaurant & Lounge in Penn Hills, said he has increased his volume and lowered his prices on takeout beer, so, You're paying almost the same price as if you went into the grocery stores in Ohio. He also sells a variety of shrink-wrapped custom gift packs. We can't keep them in stock.

Pennsylvania's beer distributors are not just sitting idly by, the Post-Gazette said. Having won the right to be open on Sundays starting in September, they continue to seek the OK to sell 12-packs. Tavern owners, who opposed Sunday sales, also have opposed this change. It's just so antiquated. We have a license to sell beer. We should be able to sell beer in 12 packs, Dino DeFlavio, who runs McBroom distributor in Regent Square and whose parents own D's in the next block, told the paper.

Mary Lou Hogan, executive secretary and counsel for the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania, said the group will push for that legislation starting in January. Meanwhile, the distributors association is fighting a controversial application by Sheetz Inc. to begin selling beer at a new store in Altoona using an E license. Hogan said the group is not against six-pack shops per se, but it has issues with a Sheetz convenience store selling beer because it also sells gasoline and nonfood products. She said E licenses were not intended for this kind of business.

But as reported in CSP Daily News, Sheetz wants to sell single cans of beer and six-packs (no cases) for carryout only. The company is not seeking permission for customers to drink beer in the restaurant or drive-through. The new Altoona store is a pay-at-the-pump proposition for fuel. There's no need for a gas customer to come into the store, the company said. Unless, of course, you're hungry or thirstyin which case, you can pay for your gas first, park your car and come into the convenience restaurant to make a separate transaction for food.

This arrangement is intended to satisfy Pennsylvania liquor laws. You can't sell beer and gas on the same property, Chairman Steve Sheetz said. This one has separate properties with all pay at the pump. You must have the seating and be customarily a food and beverage business. We just don't meet that at any other Sheetz locations in the state, he said.

Six-pack shops are filling a niche that is somewhere between distributors or bars, said John Cirillo, who owns the Gorillo's Six Pack Shop in Butler, which he describes as like a convenience store that has all beer. It also offers food--pizza and snacksas it must. These laws are real gray, he told the paper. Still, There's nothing dirty and seedy about [selling six-packs]. It's only common sense.

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