Sheetz stays involved in liquor law reform

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny, gestured angrily at Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley on Tuesday as he lambasted a row of state officials from a Capitol dais.

“Let me be honest about Sheetz and all those other convenience stores,” Ferlo said to applause from assembled union members. “Yes, they are a reality, whether I like it or not. They rip people off every day. They charge outrageous prices. They have smaller products. It’s the reality of today’s marketplace.”

A Sheetz executive would later dismiss the accusations as “ignorant.”

While it might not be obvious from Ferlo’s speech, the Tuesday hearing in Harrisburg dealt with liquor reform – a contentious issue on a tightening legislative deadline. And Sheetz Inc., from its Altoona headquarters, has become a major combatant in the battle, leading a pervasive political and online campaign against Pennsylvania’s alcohol laws.

Ferlo’s comments Tuesday reflect the influence of the “Free My Beer” campaign, a statewide program Sheetz has spearheaded alongside allies from the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, a trade group.

Anyone who’s shopped at a Sheetz store in recent months has likely seen the original signs: red mats at each register, asking, “Want beer here?” In later weeks, after pro-liquor-reform House Bill 790 made its way through that chamber, the messages were replaced with: “Your voice was heard – now on to the Senate.”

Liquor reform’s hopes now sit in the Senate, where lawmakers are pressing for pet changes and tearing out elements of the House bill they consider unnecessary. The final Senate version, some legislators have said, could look nothing like its predecessor, and could even cut out major reforms listed in Gov. Tom Corbett’s original plan.

For Sheetz and the organizers of Free My Beer, the key is to ensure the state’s decades-old gasoline rule dies with whatever reform bill the Senate passes.

Under Pennsylvania law, any establishments that sells fuel – Sheetz stores, for example – are barred from selling alcohol. House Bill 790 includes a provision eliminating the rule, but with liquor-store changes and wholesale licenses occupying media attention, there’s no guarantee the comparatively minor change will pass.

The current gasoline law has led to clever loopholes, like the 17th Street Sheetz convenience restaurant that’s legally split into two businesses so the company can sell beer on-site. Strategically placed speed bumps and a thin Plexiglas shield delineate the theoretically separate gas and restaurant businesses, though customers would never guess they’re in two stores.

That store has become a symbol of the liquor-reform movement, even drawing Cawley for a February visit. The lieutenant governor pretended to buy a six-pack of Yuengling lager in a photo opportunity highlighting the reform plan’s possibilities.

“We know it’s a good product for our retail model,” said Louie Sheetz, the company’s vice president of marketing. “It’s good business, or we wouldn’t be pushing it as aggressively as we are.”

Hundreds of Sheetz stores in several other states sell beer, he said, noting in February that the 17th Street location tallies roughly 2,000 alcohol transactions each week.

The company and its allies have put their money behind the cause, with a Sheetz political action committee in April donating $7,500 to a food merchants’ committee that then backed pro-liquor-reform lawmakers from across the state. Among them was state Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks, who heads the Senate committee responsible for alcohol reform.

While other convenience store chains have backed Free My Beer, Sheetz remains the largest voice behind privatization, Louie Sheetz said Thursday. He estimated less than 10 percent of Pennsylvania’s convenience stores display any public messages for reform.

“We lead it in that we’re constantly trying to help other retailers get on the system,” he said. “We’ve tried to get other convenience stores, like Wawa and Rutters, to take up the campaign.”

A few smaller chains have placed the signs in their stores, he said, and Sheetz locations have provided pre-postage-stamped cards marked with senators’ names and addresses.

But the campaign’s broadest statewide reach is online, where nearly 40,000 people “like” the Free My Beer Facebook page.

“Cold six packs at grocery stores. It’s that easy. Prohibition ended a long time ago,” one follower posted in May.

“Bring Pennsylvania into the 21st century with the rest of the states,” another said.

The page provides news updates and links to videos, including one mocking Ferlo’s speech Tuesday.

Previously, company representatives could be seen soliciting signatures and distributing Free My Beer apparel during Pittsburgh Steelers games, the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported. But they don’t buy newspaper ad space or television commercials, Louie Sheetz stressed.

In March, the company sent emails to its card-carrying club members, asking them to send pro-reform letters to their lawmakers.

Within 48 hours, Louie Sheetz said, customers sent 2,000 messages to Harrisburg.

There’s little question that the Senate will take up the reform in some capacity: Corbett’s aides have repeatedly solicited help from lawmakers over the past week, state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, said, and caucuses are set to bring Republicans onto the same page.

An end to the gasoline-and-alcohol law could be in sight, Eichelberger said Thursday.

“I could see that happening. And that would be a major victory for Sheetz,” he said, noting the company’s heavy involvement in the issue.

While a Senate bill will almost certainly diverge from its predecessor, many key elements are likely to be preserved, Eichelberger said. And with Corbett all but demanding a bill on his desk by the June 30 budget deadline, it could arrive sooner than some might expect.

And until convenience stores and gas stations can sell beer alongside delis and restaurants, the Free My Beer campaign will continue, Louie Sheetz said. It has already marked some three years since its establishment amid an earlier round of liquor-reform conflict.

“If this is a round one, and it’s a partial change … we will look for another time and opportunity to have the issue presented again,” he said, noting that “out-of-touch, ill-advised and ignorant” legislators like Ferlo are an impediment.

“But if we were able to sell beer in convenience stores, that would be the end of the campaign,” he said excitedly. “Because beer would be free.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.