TORONTO – Ontario’s premier made history Tuesday simply by purchasing a six-pack of beer at a grocery store, something that hasn’t been legal in the province since Prohibition.
Kathleen Wynne, 62, smiled when she was asked for proof of age as she bought the beer at a Toronto Loblaws, starting the long-awaited rollout of beer sales in select grocery stores across the province.
“It’s nice to be carded,” she joked before announcing that 58 grocery stores across Ontario can now legally sell beer. “Today the wait is over. Beer is here, in grocery stores, just in time for the holidays.”
The Liberal government aims to have six-packs of beer available at 58 grocery stores by the end of this month, and expand to 450 grocers, both large and small, by 2017. That’s about the same number of retail outlets as the Beer Store operates.
Newfoundland and Labrador sells beer in some corner stores and gas stations; in Quebec, beer is available on the shelves of grocery and convenience stores. New Brunswick sells a limited selection of wines at some grocery stores, while Ontario sells Canadian wines at 300 Wine Rack locations, three-quarters of which are located in grocery stores but have separate checkouts.
The province is still examining ways to expand wine sales to more private stores, Wynne said.
“It is complex in terms of trade agreements,” she said. “We’re not backing off on it, but we do want to get it right.”
Making it more convenient to buy beer is all about making life easier for people who lead busy lives, said Wynne.
The changes are also about fairness, she said, with at least 20 per cent of grocers’ shelf space for beer dedicated to products from small brewers “so that the province’s incredible craft brewers can continue to grow in a fair and efficient beer market.”
In addition to six-packs at some grocery stores, LCBO stores sell six and 12-packs of beer, but the foreign-owned Beer Store retains exclusive rights to sell cases of 24.
“You can probably buy a six-pack of tall boys and you get pretty close to a 12-pack,” said Finance Minister Charles Sousa.
The Liberals didn’t want to “blow up” the Beer Store’s cost-effective distribution network, which keeps Ontario beer prices among the lowest in Canada, said Wynne.
She also praised the consortium for returning to its co-operative roots by opening up ownership to all Ontario-based brewers.
The government awarded the first round of beer licences to 45 outlets operated by 13 large chains, including retail giant Walmart, Metro Ontario and Sobeys. Of the initial 58 licences, 13 went to independent grocers, including Starsky Fine Foods in Hamilton, Pino’s Get Fresh in Sault Ste. Marie and J-&-B La Mantia in Lindsay.
Not all of them were immediately ready to start selling beer.
“We understand from some of the outlets that it’s going to take them a few days to get up and running, but they can order the beer today,” said Wynne.
Loblaws said beer was available in 19 of its outlets, including some Real Canadian Superstore, Your Independent Grocery and Fortinos locations, and promised to expand to more than 200 varieties of domestic, imported and local brews.
“And we have the opportunity for regional favourites on a store-by-store basis,” said Loblaw’s COO Grant Froese.
Wynne again rejected the idea of selling beer in corner stores — something first promised by the Liberal government of David Peterson 30 years ago — warning “the price of beer would go up if you put it in convenience stores.”
She was asked why grocers couldn’t sell marijuana when the federal government legalizes it, after saying Monday that it would make sense for the LCBO to retail pot because of its secure distribution network and history of socially responsible sales.
“I think leaving it to random distribution is not acceptable,” Wynne said Tuesday. “It is going to have to be controlled in some way, and I’ll await the federal government’s direction on that.”
The Beer Store agreed to a government request to appoint a beer ombudsman in January, but the details of exactly what the job will entail remain unclear.
“I’m encouraged by how much interest there seems to be in this position,” Sousa said with a straight face.
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