Alcohol bill could affect Kevin Johnson grocery store project

Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate, has introduced a measure that would ban alcohol sales at stores that offer only self-checkout lines. The bill is supported by groups fighting alcohol abuse.

But AB 523 would seem to disproportionately affect one non-union grocery store chain. That chain, Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets, is in the midst of a push to expand into northern California-including in an Oak Park location being developed by Sacramento mayoral candidate Kevin Johnson.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control said officials there did not request the bill and see no evidence that it is needed.

AB 523 is sponsored by the Marin Institute, a San Rafael-based alcohol industry watchdog group. De La Torre introduced it on June 23 by gutting a stalled measure that would have changed how the University of California system dealt with contractors.

Under current California law, any self-service checkout line will freeze up when someone attempts to buy alcohol. Typically, one clerk will monitor several lines, checking IDs to clear alcohol sales. But Michael Scippa, advocacy director at the Marin Institute, said self-service checkouts could make it easier for teenagers and inebriated adults to get alcohol that they'd have a hard time getting a clerk to sell them.

"It's just not going to be possible for one person to monitor five or six checkout lines without someone slipping by," Scippa said. "I think it's a prescription for increasing underage consumption, a recipe for more binge drinking."

But an analysis of the bill by the Senate Governmental Organization Committee noted "ABC staff indicates that they have no evidence of any problems associated with minors purchasing alcoholic beverages through self-service checkouts."

Chris Albrecht, legislative officer with ABC, confirmed this assessment. He said that ABC ran a field operation in the Long Beach area earlier this year. They had several teenaged volunteers, mainly members of Law Enforcement Explorers programs, attempt to buy alcohol at self-service lines. In each case, Albrecht said, the systems worked as designed and prevented the sale.

"We have not seen evidence of a systematic problem in the industry with allowing consumers to conduct part of those transactions on their own," Albrecht said. "We've gotten no complaints about their use leading to sales to minors."

The bill would disproportionately affect El Segundo-based Fresh & Easy for one key reason-they're the only large chain in the state currently running on a self-checkout only model. While a typical grocery store would have to put up signs routing alcohol buyers to manned checkout lines, Fresh & Easy would need to install one manned line in each store to comply with the law. This point came up during the discussion of the bill in Senate Governmental Organization Committee on July 3. AB 523 failed in that committee, but was granted reconsideration.

The chain is owned by Tesco, the largest grocery store chain in the United Kingdom and the third largest in the world. There are currently 64 stores in Southern California, Las Vegas and Phoenix. The chain has seven stores planned for the greater Sacramento area.

One of these is a 15,000 square foot location to be built in Oak Park on property owned by Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star who has sometimes run afoul of labor unions in his new career as a developer. The Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 447 hit him with a mailer and website rehashing sexual misconduct allegations that have dogged Johnson since the mid-1990s, though he was never prosecuted. Johnson won the most votes in the June election and is favored in a November runoff against Heather Fargo. Johnson's campaign declined to comment.

Most Fresh & Easy stores are around 10,000 square feet, closer in size to the typical drug store than a grocery store. Many are located in economically marginal neighborhoods-as Scippa and other critics have pointed out.

"I'm not going to say they're not doing something good by providing some food choices that weren't there before, but they're targeting neighborhood that are also targeted by alcohol companies."

But Fresh & Easy spokesman Brendan Wonnacott said the stores have adequate security. All the stores have closed circuit cameras to prevent theft. They also don't stock products attractive to teens, he said, such as malt liquor, wine coolers or beer in sizes smaller than a six-pack. Less than 10 percent of each store's shelf space is devoted to alcohol, Wonnacott added.
But De La Torre's office pointed to numerous websites telling teens how to scam self-service checkout line to buy or steal alcohol.

The website Stealthiswiki, which advises visitors on ways to shoplift, has a section on Tesco and other self-serve stores. It notes "In most small stores, there will be one (extremely bored) clerk per four terminals," and goes on to detail ways to pay for one item and walk out with another.

Another website asserts that self-service checkouts for another chain continue to work normally even when someone swipes alcohol through the reader. In New York, a different discount chain, Price Chopper, ran afoul of that state's liquor authority after minors were able to buy alcohol at self-serve lines.

But it appears the bill may run afoul of Republicans who want to protect what they see as Fresh & Easy's right to stay a non-union shop. The bill got no Republican votes in GO. According to a Republican staff analysis that has been circulating, it is a "solution in search of a problem." It goes on to say that "Big labor has its sights on Fresh and Easy."

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