In most chain stores in the state you won’t find beer or wine for sale, but a 7-Eleven in Bethesda is now one of the exceptions, securing the right to sell beer and wine to customers for the second time in a year.
The Montgomery County Board of License Commissioners voted 4-1 to allow Girma Hailu, the franchise store owner, to begin selling alcohol again at his Glen Echo store after a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge had stopped him from doing so in November.
Hailu, who brought with him a petition signed by more than 900 of his customers asking that he be allowed to sell beer and wine, said he’d restock his shelves and start selling alcohol later Thursday.
“I’m very thankful,” Hailu said. “I’m pretty thrilled. It’s not for me, it’s for the Glen Echo neighborhood who are underserviced.”
The board first granted Hailu a license in March and for seven months he had sold beer and wine at the 7305 MacArthur Blvd. store.
The 7-Eleven store in Glen Echo via Google Maps.
But that came to a halt after a nearby competitor—Talbert’s Ice & Beverage Service on River Road—objected to the granting of the license, which led to the court reviewing whether the convenience store should be allowed to sell beer and wine.
In November the judge ordered that the board review its March decision and revoked the license. The judge asked the board to examine Hailu’s franchise agreement, the competitive effect of the store’s sales on other licensees in the area and whether the store violated a 1970s state law that prohibits “chain stores” from selling alcohol.
Mom-and-pop liquor stores in the state have fiercely protected the law to prevent competition from gas stations, convenience stores and other corporate-owned competitors that could impact their businesses. And on Thursday that was no exception. Peter Frank, the owner of Talbert’s, was represented during the board hearing by Steve Wise, a well-known Annapolis attorney and liquor lobbyist who also represents the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association.
Wise put on a lengthy case that attempted to make multiple connections between Hailu’s store and the 7-Eleven corporation. The hearing over the license lasted about three hours.
“If he was an independent operator, he’d say ‘I’m not flying that [7-Eleven] sign and I’m not serving Slurpee’s’,” Wise said.
The attorney also called Edward Dent, who operates a 7-Eleven on Georgia Avenue in Aspen Hill as a witness. Dent’s store is the only other 7-Eleven in the county that sells beer and wine, but Wise noted that’s only because Dent received his alcohol license before the chain store law went into effect and had been “grandfathered” in under the law, giving him the right to continue selling alcohol.
Hailu’s attorney, Scott Rome, responded that Hailu’s franchise agreement with the company does not include revenue from the sales of beer and wine. This meant the company would not directly benefit from alcohol sales, although it could indirectly benefit from more customers coming into the store and buying coffee, snacks or other items, he said.
But it seemed that Hailu’s reputation also impressed the board. A Montgomery County police officer testified that Hailu helped raise “a significant amount of money” for a local softball team and that there weren’t any legal issues during the seven months Hailu was able to sell beer and wine at the store. The officer said Hailu would run his own internal stings to make sure his employees weren’t selling to minors, adding, “I wish more businesses were doing that.”
A neighboring business owner, Brad Siegel of Glen Echo Pizza and Subs, said “there’s been a huge demand in the neighborhood” for beer and wine—and that people want to buy it near their homes.
A resident of the neighborhood, Barry Fausnaugh, told the board that it takes him as long as 30 minutes to make a trip to buy alcohol because the store that is nearest his home is across the one-way bridge in Glen Echo, while it only takes 10 minutes to reach Hailu’s store. He said the community was supporting Hailu.
“We have a neighborhood listserve and when this issue first came up, everyone on it was encouraging people to sign the petition,” Fausnaugh said. “We’d do anything we could. That’s why I’m here today.”
By the end of the hearing, Frank, the Talbert’s owner, told Hailu that he had no problem with Hailu personally, but rather was concerned that allowing him to sell beer and wine at his store could lead to other franchise chain stores doing the same.
Wise noted that Maryland law notes simply selling alcohol “on the premises” of a chain store is against Maryland law, but in the end the board sided with Hailu and reinstated his license.
After the board meeting, Wise said he would appeal the case in circuit court on behalf of his client, and said the ruling doesn’t set a precedent or provide other chain stores a path to obtain alcohol licenses.
“Nothing is precedent-setting until a court makes a decision,” Wise said.
Hailu said he would continue to fight for his license, if necessary.