The State Liquor Authority approved a license for a wine and liquor store set to open in front of a Wegmans supermarket in North Buffalo, over objections from local liquor store owners who claim the Rochester grocery store chain is actually behind the plan.
The SLA granted approval Tuesday to Amherst Wine Partners LLC. Its co-owners are Nicole Wegman, whose father is Wegmans Chief Executive Officer Danny Wegman, and Patrick Fisher, a Lake View resident who is a manager at a Wegmans supermarket in West Seneca.
The SLA meeting was held in New York City. Nicole Wegman and Fisher, along with some Buffalo-area liquor store owners, participated via a video link at the SLA’s Buffalo office in the Electric Tower.
Amherst Wine Partners will open a nearly 15,000-square-foot store in a building that it will lease from Wegmans. Nicole Wegman said plans call for the store to open in October or November.
Local liquor store owners who opposed the application, along with an attorney representing some of them, argued the new store is not needed, given that at least seven liquor stores are within 3½ miles of the Amherst Street location. Opponents also contend that Wegmans is using new stores such as this one to sidestep a state law barring supermarkets from selling wine. In past years, that issue has spawned intense lobbying and legislative battles at the state level.
While Nicole Wegman will continue to work as a vice president of perishable merchandising for Wegmans, she said the store that she and Fisher will operate is independent of the supermarket chain.
But Bill Caputi, owner of Caputi’s Northtown Wine and Liquors in Amherst, claimed the new store is “an end sweep game by the Wegmans corporation to put liquor stores in Buffalo.”
Caputi questioned why Nicole Wegman had owned a large Rochester-area wine and liquor store, sold it to her father and is now part of a new store opening in Buffalo, much farther from where she lives. “This is trying to use the rules to get licenses because they couldn’t get wine (sales) in grocery stores,” he said.
Caputi predicted other liquor stores, with Wegmans family members as license applicants, will pop up near other Wegmans supermarkets in the Buffalo Niagara region in coming years.
Dennis Rosen, the SLA’s chairman, told Caputi that state law does not bar members of the same family from opening their own individual stores: “Let’s say I have 10 sons. The way the laws are now, every one of those sons of mine can open a liquor store, as long as they’re not buying cooperatively.”
But Caputi claimed that the Wegmans family members’ stores “do buy cooperatively, and they’re doing it from one location.”
Rosen replied: “That allegation has been made, and we’ve made some inquiries, and it has never been substantiated, that they’re buying cooperatively. There’s a big difference between making an allegation and making it stick, which is what we have to do.”
The SLA has asked opponents to present evidence, but “nobody has,” Rosen said. “If we can show that there is cooperative buying, these licenses not only won’t be issued, but some of those that have been issued may well be revoked.”
Pressed by Rosen, Nicole Wegman estimated said she would be at the new store two to three times per month, but would be in contact with Fisher by phone and electronically. Fisher will manage the new store on Amherst Street.
In comments after the meeting, Nicole Wegman said that when she owned her Rochester-area store, she never made cooperative purchases with other family members’ stores.
“The laws are very strict, you cannot buy cooperatively with another store,” she said. “It’s illegal in New York State, and I’ve always known that, so you just don’t do it.”
Nicole Wegman said she can relate to how the other liquor stores feel about a new entrant, from dealing with supermarket competition in her job at Wegmans “But it makes you get better, it’s what you do. That’s what free enterprise is.”
Nicole Wegman said she sold the Rochester-area store to her father about two years ago because he wanted its hard-to-find inventory. “It was a bigger investment to me to hold on to that. He wanted it, it’s perfect, he’s kind of a wine collector, so I sold it to him.”
Caputi predicted the Buffalo area will see more license applications like the one approved Tuesday.
“The bigger picture is that they’re going to change the face of liquor stores in Western New York,” he said. “That’s what the story is here. It’s not them getting one license that’s going to hurt people down in that area.”