Ricker’s would get reprieve—for now—under measure approved by House panel

Ricker’s convenience stores in Columbus and Sheridan would still be able to sell cold carryout beer—for now—under a measure passed Monday by an Indiana House panel.

The House Public Policy Committee passed a measure, by a 9-4 vote, that seeks to clarify Indiana’s alcohol laws in advance of the Legislature taking an in-depth look at the regulation of the industry.

Ricker’s has rankled the Legislature by requesting and receiving restaurant permits allowing it to sell cold carryout beer. Critics have said Ricker’s took advantage of a loophole in state law, but lawmakers last week realized they could be stepping into some hot water if they stripped the convenience store of permits that it and the state say were granted legally.

The measure clarifies that “it is the intent of the General Assembly that a restaurant within a grocery store, convenience store, specialty or gourmet food store, or drug store should not be given the privilege of selling cold beer or liquor for carryout.”

However, it authorizes businesses that obtain permits before May 15 to sell alcoholic beverages for carryout to continue to do so until their permits expire.

After May 15, retailer permittees wouldn't be able to sell cold carryout alcohol unless 30 percent of their gross retail sales are derived from the sale of alcoholic beverages for on-premises consumption.

Committee chairman Ben Smaltz, R-Auburn, said “no one is taking away current permits” from Ricker’s. But he said if the Legislature didn’t press pause, many other permits that the Legislature considers improper are likely to be granted.

Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said the measure would "help temporarily stabilize the use of permits for purposes that were above or around the intended purpose [of the law] without having huge consequences to those that are currently operating.”

State parks, golf courses, hotels, social clubs, breweries, artisanal distilleries and several other types of businesses are exempt from the measure.

Critics included Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson. She said she thought putting in the language about intent is “putting the cart before the horse” before the state takes a comprehensive look at the laws.

She also said she believes changing the rules on Ricker’s is “unfair” given that it followed current laws to gain its permits.

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 locations. Lawmakers have said the cold beer sales go against the spirit of the existing state law.

Ricker's acquired the permits allowing for cold beer sales in February. A Columbus location began serving alcohol under the new license March 1, while a Sheridan location began its cold beer sales last week.

Several lawmakers said the measure approved Monday—which still needs to be signed off on by the full House and Senate—represented a good compromise until lawmakers could do a deep dive into Indiana’s alcohol laws.

Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, said Ricker’s has “highlighted the absurdity of our existing alcohol laws.” He went into a Ricker’s over the weekend to purchase cold carryout beer and said “they followed the law” and that he, as a consumer, enjoyed the experience.

Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said changes to the industry wouldn’t happen overnight and would likely involve concessions from all interested parties.

“It’s going to be a legislative process,” Lehman said, "and not an industry process."

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