Summer road trips mean big business for gas stations. And if they sell gas and beer and wine, even bigger business. There are already more than 1,800 gas stations that sell alcohol in Michigan, but there are about to be a lot more. And not everyone’s happy about it.
Over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, the Meijer gas station on Ann Arbor-Saline Road in Ann Arbor was busy. Twelve pumps with cars coming and going constantly. (In full disclosure, Meijer is a financial supporter of Michigan Radio.)
The gas station has a convenience store, but to buy alcoholic beverages, customers had to go across a large parking lot to the Meijer grocery store. That’s because grocery stores were not allowed to sell alcohol at gas stations they also own. But a new state law that went into effect on July 11 lets them apply for a second license at the pumps.
As she was filling up, Jennifer Atkinson of Whitmore Lake said she'd rather have the option of buying beer and wine while she’s filling up.
“Well, I moved out here 12 years ago from Nevada and they do it there," Atkinson said. "I don’t buy that often, but it’s more convenient if I do want to pick something up. So, I find it kind of inconvenient if I’m at the gas station and want to pick something up and I can’t.”
Asked if she thought people might be more likely to try to buy alcohol underage or when they're already intoxicated at a gas station versus a grocery store, Atkinson said, "No, because I think it’s still going to be monitored.”
But not everyone agrees.
"I think that’s kind of silly to be selling alcoholic beverages at a gas station," said LaVelle Michael Scott of Detroit. "It really don’t make no sense.”
Scott’s not opposed to people buying adult beverages. He just thinks party shoppes and grocery stores are better at enforcing liquor laws than the gas stations that already sell alcohol.
“People got kids out here. You want to make it home safe. You don’t want to worry about getting hit from a drunk driver that’s stopped for ‘$10 on Pump 3’ and a shot of 1800 [Tequila], too.”
Just to be clear, the new gas station liquor licenses only apply to beer and wine. And supporters of the change say it's really only a slight tweak to the regulatory landscape.
“The gas station in my township (already) sells beer and wine," said the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton. "There’s a lot throughout the state that already do this, so I felt that this was a commonsense way to increase competition and to allow for a more open market."
Nesbitt sees the gas stations run by Meijer, Village Market, Kroger, and others as an extension of the grocery stores.
“They’re able to sell beer and wine 40 yards away, but they can’t at their convenience store location even though it’s the same piece of property, same owner,” he said.
One person who knows the grocery business is state Rep. Ray Franz, R-Onekama.
Franz is a former butcher and owned his own independent grocery stores. He says Meijer is already a juggernaut, and this gives the chain an extra edge.
“They are becoming so dominant in the marketplace that they are killing any kind of local, small operations. Competition is a good thing, keeps everybody on their toes, but unfair competition really isn’t something that we should be supporting," Franz said.
Here’s what Franz means by “unfair competition.” Any store in Michigan that sells both alcohol and gas is required to have $250,000 worth of inventory, not including the alcohol and gas. To meet the requirement, mom-and-pop gas stations could fill their buildings floor to ceiling with gum and air fresheners. Instead, they get creative.
“They buy $200,000 or $250,000 worth of stamps to put into a safe, just so they say they have that inventory," Franz said. "You can’t lock up that much of a small operator’s capital and still call it fair competition.”
Here’s the thing: Under the new law, to use Meijer as an example, the Meijer convenience store won’t have to load up on stamps, because the inventory in the big grocery store across the parking lot counts for both places. Franz says the small gas station across the street doesn’t have that luxury.
“I’m not advocating total elimination of all restrictions," he said. "I just want everybody to play by the same rules, and this doesn’t play by the same rules. That’s inherently unfair.”
Meijer didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview. But as of late last week, the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs had received 96 applications for secondary beer and wine licenses. Ninety-three of them are from Meijer.