MOORHEAD, Minn. — Those who visit Minnesota may notice they can’t buy wine and beer in grocery or convenience stores, a buzzkill that contradicts most other states in America.
But that may change soon. If the bill advanced by state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point, passes, Minnesotans may be able to pick up a bottle of wine or case of beer while shopping for food or filling their gas tanks.
“It’s time to update these antiquated laws that we have here from the Prohibition era,” she said. “It’s what the consumers are asking for.”
Housley renewed her push on Dec. 8 to reverse a law that prohibits the sale of beer and wine in grocery and convenience stores. A scientific study cited by the Minnesota Grocers Association and Minnesota Marketplace Alcohol Alliance said 76% of Minnesotans want the law repealed.
But not everyone is saying “cheers” to legislation that would repeal the decadeslong law banning the practice.
“I’m against it totally,” said Joseph Haj, owner of Trax Liquors in Dilworth, Minn. “Business would suffer for pretty much all liquor stores unless they were a grocery store. It just wouldn’t be an equal playing field.”
Housley introduced her bill Feb. 21 in the Minnesota Legislature, but her recent call for the bill to be taken up comes after two major brewing companies — Heineken USA and Constellation Brands — announced they would no longer make 3.2% beer. Also known as “low-point” or “three-two” beer, the brew beverage has 3.2% alcohol by weight.
Language in the bill also includes Minnesota-made spirits, but that likely will be omitted when a revised bill is considered in the 2020 legislative session, Housley's office said.
Minnesota is the last state in the country that allows the “low-point beer” in grocery or convenience stores after Utah and Kansas decided to allow the two business types to sell stronger beer.
Because Minnesota is the only state that sells 3.2% beer in grocery and convenience stores, both Constellation, which produces Corona and Modelo Especial, and Heineken said they would stop making the product, according to Housley’s release.
“The grocery stores are not selling much of it, so they are not stocking it,” she said.
A spokesperson for Constellation Brands was unavailable for comment. A message was left with Heineken, but it was not returned by press time.
'Ease of use'
Hornbacher’s didn’t sell 3.2% beer before the two major beer distributors made the announcement, said Matthew Liseth, president of the grocery store chain. When visitors come to the state, he has to explain why their stores don’t have alcohol.
“If you go on vacation to Arizona, California, that (beer and wine) is in the grocery stores in multiple locations,” Liseth said. “It’s coming around to what other states in the union do today.”
Only four states completely prohibit beer from being sold in grocery stores, and 11 don’t allow wine.
North Dakota grocers and gas stations can sell alcohol, but the products must be “separated from the nonlicensed portion of the business by a wall,” according to state law.
Half of the country allows spirit sales in grocery stores, though Minnesota, Kentucky and Florida require that hard liquor be in a “separate entrance.”
For example, a Hornbacher’s in West Fargo has a liquor store inside the grocery store, Liseth said. Alcohol isn’t in the aisles with the rest of the store’s products, but customers can still access it inside the store.
Grocers face competition not only from big-box stores — Target, Costco and Walmart — but also Amazon and other online vendors that sell groceries, Housley said. Reversing the alcohol ban would give grocery companies a chance to expand and innovate, she said.
Liseth said he would not have a problem if Minnesota gave grocers and convenience stores the option to sell alcohol.
“It opens up the competition to everyone,” Liseth said, adding people are looking for “ease of use. It’s interesting how the rest of the country seems to be there.”
In 2017, Minnesota legalized the sale of liquor on Sundays, repealing a ban that was almost 160 years old.
Perhaps that’s why more people may be open to the idea of buying beer and wine in grocery and convenience stores, Liseth said.
“I think there is a pretty good chance to allow that,” he said. “If it’s not going to happen now, I would assume it will happen in the future.”
Liseth acknowledged there will be challenges in training employees to properly sell alcohol and making sure the stores are in compliance with state laws.
“We know from the liquor stores that we operate in North Dakota that it is a very serious business,” he said. “It does take responsibility to do this business correctly.”
Not all liquor stores in the area spoke out against the proposal. Justin Blanford, general manager of 99 Bottles in Moorhead, said he felt indifferent about Housley’s legislation. He said he has purchased alcohol from grocery stores in other states, but he added that he doesn’t mind a trip to the liquor store.
“We’re a very specialized store,” he said. “A grocery store carrying beer wouldn’t really be a big threat to us because it is mostly Budweiser, domestic beer, stuff that you can find anywhere.”
His store has some of the more common beer, but it focuses on customer service, education and hand-selected wine and liquor. Staff are trained to interact with customers, teach patrons about alcohol and make recommendations, he said.
“They want to feel connected to the product,” he said.