PLCB Chief Talks Wine Boutiques, Partnering with DiBruno Brothers

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We often wonder if the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board has a special department dedicated to enraging restaurateurs, wine geeks and the alcohol-appreciating population-at-large. Even when it tries to drag itself into the 21st century, it still manages to tick someone (or everyone) off. The most recent kerfuffle involves the PLCB’s seemingly innocuous plan to sublease space within pre-existing grocers to open wine “boutiques,” a project which has raised the ire of some local restaurateurs who believe the state-run monopoly is handpicking partners in a secretive process and creating an unfair advantage for some at the expense of others. We spoke with Joe Conti, the CEO of the PLCB to find out how the partners are selected and who else is under consideration…

How did this wine boutique idea come about?
I would say a year to 18 months ago - our chairman, P.J. Stapleton, had an idea for wine boutiques. We did have a wine boutique in the ‘80s that was not successful - wine in the ‘80s wasn’t what wine is today.

One of the main critiques of the program is that the partners are being ‘hand-selected’ by the PLCB in a secretive fashion. Can you explain how you looked for partners or locations?
We put an advertisement in the local newspapers, which is what we [normally] tend to do when we’re looking for [any] stores. The whole real estate community knows and looks for our ads. We advertised in this case in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Doylestown and West Chester. Then the word got out in the real estate community. There were several dozen responses to ads and we investigated them all.

So, to clarify, any business owner could just call you and you’ll check out their proposal?
Yes. We continue to get calls unsolicited. We got a couple of calls from Pittsburgh area this week. Some don’t get to the stage of negotiations because they don’t make sense [as locations]. There’s not a desire to partner with any particular entity. Also, we weren’t looking to partner with restaurants, we were looking to partner with high-end gourmet food stores. To go to DiBruno’s to buy a nice piece of cheese and a couple of slices of prosciutto and get a nice bottle of wine to go is what we’re envisioning here.

Maybe it’s confusing because your first partner, Jose Garces, is known for being a restaurateur, not a grocer.
Jose basically was doing this market in the Western Union building. When he heard we were placing boutiques, he called us. It makes a lot of sense for us to sublet 600 square feet from him. It’s a high-end gourmet food market - the community will embrace that concept there. In the beginning, the location was frankly more important than the concept. We looked at everything from office buildings to sites like the Italian Market. That was going to be our first one, but it fell through.

What was it and why did it fall through?
It was either 9th and Christian or 9th and Catherine - I can’t remember. DiBruno Brothers was going to sell balsamic vinegars and olive oil - and we would sell wine. We got real far along in discussion with them, but in the bottom half of the 9th inning we found that there was a school within 500 feet - that’s the only thing that prevented it. A charter school that was about 40 feet away. Schools are so close - it’s a difficulty with placing our stores in the urban settings.

Are you surprised some restaurateurs are bent out of shape?
How can I be diplomatic here? I’m from a restaurant family. I like to tease I’m a bartender by birth. My father was president of the National Restaurant Association. Yes, I was surprised. It’s a very old-fashioned, parochial view of the restaurant market. Decades ago we realized the hospitality industry survives best when there are a number of options for the consumer. I have not been in favor of protecting market share for individual restaurants. From my experience in the hospitality industry, that’s a way of the past. Over and above that, I’ve been more surprised by the misunderstanding of the perspective. Initially, chairman Stapleton testified that we probably couldn’t do more than five or 10 of these in the next five years. There are 25,000 restaurants in the state talking about five to 10 locations. I struggle with the perspective of the fight that they’re embarking.

Any other boutiques you can discuss?
There one in an office building in Center City - it’s not part of a marketplace - that’s very close to being consummated.

Is it the Comcast Center?
No. I would tell you if you were right. You’re warm though.

Okay, what else?
We have a couple discussions about a suburban location with a market. We continue to try to work with the DiBruno family. We’ve had discussions about something in their 18th and Chestnut store. We might be near the meats/seafood section there, but this is additional space they’re looking at - there are other stores that have other uses that may be moving out. If that space becomes available, it could be - we’d be fortunate to consider a location there.

PLCB Chief Talks Wine Boutiques, Partnering with DiBruno Brothers