Lawmakers nearing new deal on Ricker’s beer carryout issue

Two Ricker's convenience stores in Indiana would be able to continue sellling cold beer for carryout, but only for another year, under the latest version of a bill being considered by state lawmakers.

Under the deal—which has the stamp of approval from a top Republican—the Ricker’s stores with restaurant permits—which have been in the center of a debate that has dominated the second half of the Legislative session—would be able to sell carryout alcohol until April 2018, according to an updated draft.

The so-called conference committee report still needs four required signatures from legislative leaders and has to be approved again by both the House and Senate.

Generally, convenience stores in the state are able to sell warm beer or cold wine, but the sale of cold beer for carryout long has been reserved for Indiana's liquor stores, a right the industry's lobbyists have fought to protect for years.

Ricker's bypassed that restriction by obtaining a separate permit typically reserved for restaurants after it added seating and began offering made-to-order burritos and other Tex-Mex food at two of its 50 locations. Lawmakers have said the cold beer sales go against the spirit of the existing state law.

Under the latest proposal, restaurants may not sell carryout alcohol after May 14 unless 60 percent of their gross retail income from alcohol sales comes from on-premises consumption. That's a threshhold that Ricker's is unlikely to meet.

It exempts restaurants that received permits before Nov. 1, 2016. Ricker’s received its permits in mid-November and late December of last year.

Ricker Oil Co. Chairman and co-founder Jay Ricker said that date obviously and unfairly targets his convenience stores. The exemptions also include city markets, marinas, state parks, golf courses, hotels, resorts, social or fraternal clubs, and restaurants operated by microbreweries.

“I’m shocked at how it looks like it’s targeted to us,” Ricker said. “They’re going to yank our licenses, it appears, down the road. Everybody else pretty much gets accepted but us.”

But House Public Policy Chairman Ben Smaltz, R- Auburn, said there was good reason for not applying the 60 percent threshold to all operators.

“We would really ensnare a lot of people that prior to that Nov. 1 have been operating honorably, doing what they’re supposed to be doing, not causing anybody any trouble and just [would] be unnecessarily drawn into this battle because Ricker’s brought to the surface their restaurant interpretation [of] following the law,” Smaltz said. “I don’t think that would be fair to the masses of people.”

Ricker irked lawmakers when he legally obtained the two restaurant permits, which allowed him to sell cold carryout beer—something that convenience stores have been long trying to do. Lawmakers said he was utilizing a loophole in the law and blamed the state Alcohol and Tobacco Commission for issuing the licenses.

The latest legislation would allow Ricker’s to continue selling carryout beer for now—but essentially halts that practice after the current permit expires. Ricker said he has been told that his permits will expire at the end of the next legislative session, in April 2018.

Ricker said he hasn’t decided whether he would sue the state over the issue if it is signed into law but said he wants to exhaust other options first.

“We hear they’re really twisting arms very hard to make sure they get this through,” Ricker said. “If it gets through, then we’ll need to plead our case to the governor.”

Smaltz said he is unsure whether Ricker would have a case against the state if he were to sue.

“If we were to go into somebody’s permit right now and try and take away the permit they have, and the use and enjoyment of that permit, we would be upside down and we would be in trouble,” Smaltz said.

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