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Reform of Ontario’s nanny-state booze regulations shouldn’t resemble 7-Eleven bid

An unorthodox new business model? An attempt to get its foot in the door? An absurd publicity stunt? It’s hard to know just what to make of convenience store conglomerate 7-Eleven making a bid to serve beer and wine in 61 of its Ontario locations.

The company’s bid to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) would see the licensed stores granted the ability to serve beer and wine along with its food offerings such as pizza, fried chicken and hot dogs. That’s not a slice and a beer to go; instead, you’d be able to sit down to a cup of ale while enjoying the heat-lamp cuisine.

“To complement our fresh food and hot food programs, we are preparing for in-store service of a small selection of Ontario-made beer and wine products, offered during limited hours, and in designated consumption areas of our stores,” the company said in a statement.

On the surface, it doesn’t make any sense: who exactly wants to “dine out” in a corner of a convenience store? None of the locations strike me as an ideal place to linger in the fashion of a neighbourhood restaurant/pub. It doesn’t seem like a viable business plan.

Now, perhaps the goal is to do an end-run around current restrictions against convenience stores selling beer and wine. While the province has expanded options, including the selling of beer and wine in some supermarkets, it hasn’t done away with all of Ontario’s arcane, nanny-state rules regarding the sales of alcohol.

The province hasn’t commented on the company’s application. It’s still taking public input through today, with some kind of response coming down the road following what is undoubtedly an extensive lobbying campaign aimed at the Ford government, which has proven malleable on some fronts.

Not surprisingly, public sector unions – the ones who represent LCBO workers, for instance – are opposed to the idea. While arguing about public safety and the corruption of children, the real goal is to protect their turf.

“We’ll find ourselves going down a dangerous path if the AGCO lets this multinational corporation squeeze through a loophole and bring alcohol sales to convenience stores,” said Ontario Public Service Employees Union president Warren Thomas in a statement this week, noting the union has filed an official objection to the liquor license application. “7-Eleven says it’s trying to make its stores into restaurants where alcohol can be served, but we all know the truth: kids and teens will find themselves shoulder-to-shoulder with intoxicated people washing down a Twinkie with a six pack.”

The group representing some of the province’s hospitality businesses is questioning the timing given the COVID-related struggles in the industry just now.

Tony Elenis, president & CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association, tells the CBC that now is “not the best climate to start bringing in competition,” adding that the industry isn’t opposed to competition in general.

“As long as they play by the rules. They have to follow the health, labour and building rules associated with opening a restaurant,” he said. “It can’t just be a side gig they’re using as an opportunity to sell booze.”

It’s tough to imagine a convenience store being predominantly a restaurant – selling beer and wine for consumption only on site seems a stretch.

Of course, if the goal is to open the door for selling beer and wine in the conventional way, the plan makes more sense.

That said, the 7-Eleven proposal seems like something the province should pass on, looking to the more traditional sales model on display in many other jurisdictions, expanding on the grocery store options today.

Premier Doug Ford, who campaigned on the return of the buck-a-beer option, has loosened the controls somewhat, but we’re largely stuck with the LCBO and The Beer Store, both dealing with nanny-state floor pricing and exorbitant taxes that drive up the cost of adult beverages well beyond reasonable levels.

Ideally, the province would move in the direction of more choice and lower prices, despite successive governments refusing to treat Ontarians as adults, not to mention the addiction to tax revenues.

As with every discussion about alcohol sales, there will be battle lines drawn. On the one side, corner store owners say liberalizing beer sales would provide us with more convenience while giving a boost to smaller brewers given short shrift by a retail system controlled by two major players (Molson Coors and Anheuser Busch Inbev) and, to a lesser extent,  Sleeman (Sapporo), with all three being foreign-owned. On the other side, the quasi-monopoly claims allowing beers in convenience stores will lead to higher prices and fewer controls.

Both are clearly intent on looking after their own interests, not yours or mine. It’s up to us to determine which position benefits us most. I’m tempted to side with more openness, but only if that means lower prices due to the competition of large retailers such as grocery stores.

Such improvements will be welcomed by most Ontarians subject to runaway taxation, as taxes make up about half the cost of a bottle of beer, for instance.

Ford has already recognized our inherent dissatisfaction with taxes and paternalistic liquor laws, coupled with our distrust of pretty much anything overseen by bureaucrats and politicians. Tax increases are seen as another reason to privatize the operation, stripping government of its outdated controls of alcohol.

Yes, the LCBO stores themselves have come a long way over the years. They’re much nicer places to shop, especially compared with The Beer Store, that even more antiquated government-sanctioned cartel selling us our suds. The hours have been extended, but there’s nothing like the convenience found in other jurisdictions. Nor the selection. And, most gallingly given that the LCBO is the world’s largest buyer of spirits, nothing like the much better prices found elsewhere.

If the LCBO really wants to be accepted, cut the prices significantly, offer a much better selection (something akin to a grocery store in Tonawanda would be a start) and offer more convenience.

Touching on the longstanding debate, if beer and wine were sold more widely in grocery and convenience stores, it would benefit smaller breweries, which are now dependent on a retail channel owned and controlled by their much larger competitors.

That makes much more sense than bellying up to the bar at the 7-Eleven.

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