Massachusetts Beverage Business


Article By: Robert Bradford

Massachusetts has always known a thing or two about astonishing history-making upsets against seemingly impossible odds. In 1775, it was all about a ragtag militia group of passionate guerilla-like Minutemen routing a mighty and well-trained superior fighting force of British Red Coats from behind the stonewalls of Lexington and Concord, thus beginning the American Revolution. Three years ago, it was our heroic Red Sox taking down the vaunted Yankees with their unprecedented four-game miracle comeback in the ALC showdown, en route to their first improbable World Series championship in 86 years.

Now we can add another historic upset to the record, when just this past Election Day, November 8, a tireless and resourceful grassroots campaign, organized by a volunteer group of dedicated, but uninitiated Massachusetts beverage alcohol retailers, with some key support from wine and beer distributors, took on the formidable wealthy corporate food industry proponents of Question 1 on the Massachusetts ballot. It was a political battle almost everyone predicted would leave the Vote No initiatives buried at the polls. At one point, only a few months before the election, focus pollsters had the No Voters behind by as much as 78 to 22. But, to the astonishment of all the pundits, and most everyone else, the retailers not only prevailed, but ended up winning by a stunning 58 to 44% landslide margin that carried in 318 of the 351 cities and towns of the Commonwealth. And many people, both here and in retail markets all across the country, are still scratching their heads, wondering, "How the hell did they ever manage to pull that one off?"

At a glance, the issue at stake in Ballot Question 1 was basically supermarket interests petitioning for the right to be granted something over 2OOO new alcohol licenses for the sale of wine in their various store outlets all around the state. People first began hearing about it in late autumn 2OO5. The idea presented was one of convenience for food shoppers - a mom could now pick up some wine when she's out buying her food for dinner kind of thing. But, when licensed package store owners and their attorneys began taking a close look at the proposal, they found the language vague, loaded with all kinds of red flags, loop holes and an underlying scenario, which not only threatened their own established retail operations but also raised serious public safety issues about the responsible sale of alcohol, not to mention the viability of this state's venerable tried-and-true three-tier system of beverage alcohol distribution.

"The way the text was written," recalls Mike Cimini, the independent owner of Sturbridge-based Yankee Spirits, and one of the key players on the Opposition Committee team that was formed to challenge the Ballot Question, "it meant that all these supermarkets would be able to have all these licenses and be able to sell wine, but that there would be no change whatsoever for the independent owners. So, the biggest implication was that, not only had they written a bill that would effectively change the law in their arena, but also that it had been written in such a way that it didn't allow for fair competition across the spectrum. It was just affecting foodstores. So, unless independent retailers wanted to get into the food business, first, they weren't going to be able to get into these licenses, and obviously this was going to devalue every liquor license out there. All of a sudden there'd be all these new licenses they were selling, and we'd be limited in the scope of competition. So, a call was made at a meeting of Massachusetts Package Store Association members for volunteers for a committee to steer the opposition to this. At this point we really didn't know what this would involve, but this is where myself and all the rest of our guys came in and started meeting as an opposition committee group to collect our thoughts and put something into process."

Aside from Cimini, other retailers who stepped into key roles on the Committee were MassPack's First Vice President and owner of Norwood-based The Winexpress, Peter Kessel, who became the Committee Chairman, also Buddy Carp, owner of Raynham and Taunton Wine & Liquor, Rick Curtis of Curtis Liquors in South Weymouth, and MassPack Treasurer and owner of Sandwich-based Canterbury Liquors on Cape Cod, Dick Hurley. Still others included Joe Saia, owner of West Concord Liquor Store, MassPack Board Director Chris Smith, who owns Plymouth-based Long Ridge Wine & Spirits and The Wine Shop in Brighton, Chris Gasparro, owner of Seekonk Liquors, John Haronian of Douglas Wine, and MassPack members Jeff Crisileo and Ben Weiner. Also playing key advisory roles were MassPack Executive Director Frank Anzalotti, his counterpart from the Massachusetts Wine & Spirits Distributors Association, Bob Hurley, and Massachusetts Beer Distributors Association Executive Director, John Stasiowski.

"The first thing we did was to look at a number of legal challenges to the petition," recalls Cimini. "Some of these were advanced by the wine and spirits guys in concert with our attorneys. And one of the key things, at this point, is that it was at this point we learned that in order to be a statewide valid question, it had to involve all the 351 towns in the Commonwealth. This meant two things, which the supermarkets would later deny throughout the entire campaign. First one was that it made dry towns wet, without any further legislation. In other words, if this thing had passed, the selectmen in the dry town would have been able to issue licenses without asking for any further input from their public, even though the town had voted on several occasions to be dry. So, the state would be effectively over-ruling that position.

"Other thing we learned was that convenience stores were part of this mix, because, since the issue has to touch all towns in the state, there aren't supermarkets in all these 351 towns. The largest foodstore is sometimes a convenience store. And in order to pass a state constitutional muster, the ballot had to affect all 351 towns. This is how the supermarkets ended up shooting themselves in the foot, I think, because they never intended to include convenience stores, and were trying to muscle out all the other competition. But the way that the law had to be written, they ended up de facto having to include them in the language. Anyway, all this was starting to take shape at the end of 2OO5, less than a year before the election."

After taking a break to attend to the holiday business crunch in their stores, the Committee reconvened in January 2OO6 and the campaign got underway in earnest. They began interviewing PR firms for professional advice, settling on Rasky-Baerlein, a strategic communications campaign specialist. "At this point, we learned it was going be a $3 million effort to fight," says Cimini, "and that the supermarkets intended to spend about $5 million. They were principally led by Stop & Shop, the biggest contributor and of course owned by the huge Dutch multinational giant Royal Ahold, but Shaw's and Star were right behind, and then Big Y, Price Shopper, Shop Rite, Whole Foods, and virtually every other substantial food store interest you can think of were also in the mix. It certainly appeared to be a daunting lineup of Goliaths, all right. And part of the problem we faced was that a lot of retailers, not to mention a great many wholesalers, simply felt there was no way we could win against these giants. And there was some thought they were even going to pump $1O million into the fight against us before it was over."

For the campaign's $3 million war chest, it was agreed with the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers and also Beer Distributors Associations that the cost would be split evenly, a million a piece. Sort of a three-legged stool, they considered it. And because of his extensive experience raising funds for charities and local civic causes, Cimini was appointed the fund-raising chair on the Committee with the unenviable task to go out and try and raise $1 million from retailers. "We kind of hoped that this would be the thing to pull almost everyone together," Cimini observes, "something that would coordinate people, and something large enough to create a critical mass. We were only asking $1OOO from each store owner, and we created a slogan, "$1OOO from 1OOO stores." But at the end of the day, we ended up getting contributions from only about 4OO different stores out of 25OO overall, including 18OO different operators. And it's hard to be entirely accurate on this point, because, for example, I'm an independent operator with two stores, and I gave out of both stores, but I'm only considered one operator. So we really weren't successful getting a broad spectrum on the donation front. It meant some of us had to dig quite a bit deeper into our pockets. But we did know that we were going to be out-spent by 3 to 5 million in this fight, and we decided we needed to use as much grassroots effort as possible.

"One thing that I don't think has ever been done in a ballot campaign in Massachusetts, or perhaps anywhere," Cimini points out, "is that we rolled out all the usual campaign tricks like voter registration with independent retailers, in-store information sessions with consumers, and eventually driving people to the polls kind of thing. These are things not normally done over ballot questions, but they're done all the time by candidates. And what we were also able to do was to get retailers who hadn't given any money to do lots of things like put up posters in stores, to talk it up with customers, to register their staff to vote. And about 5O% of Massachusetts retailers were willing to come aboard and do this kind of thing. So, although we had a number of people who just weren't savvy enough at the time to make an investment to save their business, we got them involved and contributing in these other effective grassroots ways."

In fact, it was a keen understanding of grassroots numbers and strategies that proved to be a particularly brilliant part of the Vote No campaign effort. "It's one thing that we really got right," Cimini declares. "I mean stop and think about it. There's probably something like 3OO,OOO employees in the off-premise liquor sector. Between the salesmen that call on us, the drivers, and all the people in the stores, it's just a huge number. And we were also able to leverage some of the on-premise folks into our way of thinking, emphasizing the impact this would have on them, too. Obviously, if this petition had succeeded, it would have doubled the account servicing work load for wholesalers, with more delivery trucks, larger sales forces, but with very little additional profit from sales. And if operational costs go up for the wholesalers, costs go up for everybody.

"Of course none of us knew, at the time, we'd be winning this thing by a landslide," Cimini adds. "That would have been inconceivable, in fact. At best, we thought this was a nip and tuck kind of thing. The fact is we were well behind for most of the campaign, and it was only the optimism of our committee that really kept the issue going. But among our handful of key committee members, almost all of us felt we could win this all along. No kidding on this point. And every one of us absolutely shared this conviction towards the end. But one of our biggest challenges throughout was to keep convincing a whole helluva lot of other people that we were right."

Chris Smith was one Committee player who didn't come aboard until about halfway through the campaign in June. "I'll be honest to say that, at first, I really didn't think we could win this fight," Chris admits. "But, at the same time, I wasn't willing to sit back and lose. I saw so many people cashing in the minute the ballot question became official. They were convinced we didn't have a chance. They gave up. I wasn't prepared for that. Maybe the consumer was looking at this mainly as a matter of 'Why can't I buy alcohol in my Stop & Shop?' But I was fired up by the fact that I saw this as fight between hard-working responsible individuals like myself up against shameless outright corporate greed. This really touched a raw nerve. So, about May, I told my business partner and my wife, 'Don't expect to see me around. Every extra minute I have I'm dedicating to this, because at the end of the day, it's only six months, and if I don't do everything possible to help us win, I won't feel good about myself.'

"I'm a young guy in this industry, only 32," Chris continues, "and I've only been on my own for five years. But I love this business, and what particularly inspires me is the responsibility it represents, something a lot larger than myself. To hold a liquor license is a tremendous responsibility and a mandate of public trust, and I like being entrusted with all this. Maybe the Stop & Shops might have done a good job with wine licenses, although I have reservations about any supermarket's responsible control of alcohol what with all the other things they sell. But everybody else who was entitled to these new licenses down to the 7-Elevens, gas station and convenience market types of outlets, I didn't feel they would or could do a responsible job. So, you would decimate the industry, and who knows how easy it would be to get your hands on alcohol. Towards the end of the campaign, around October, this safety issue became the biggest deciding message of the whole fight, and it truly resonated with the voters out there."

We asked WSDA Executive Director Bob Buckley for his observations about the pronounced wholesaler interest in this campaign and his personal feelings about what was at stake. "I took what some might think to be a fairly simplistic approach in talking about this issue," says Buckley, "but I think it also goes immediately to what I felt was the essence of the ballot question. When I would talk to legislative leaders who were for Question 1, I would say things like, 'Do you need to be reminded we're talking about a controlled substance here?' And sometimes I'd ask, 'Do you ever have trouble finding a Dunkin' Donuts shop in this state?' 'No, of course not, they're all over the place,' was always the answer. 'Well,' I'd point out, 'as of right now, before this ballot question is decided, did you know package stores outnumber Dunkin' Donuts outlets 2 to 1 in the Commonwealth? And if this thing passes, we're likely to go to 6 to 1. Do you feel we really need that? And who the hell really wins if it happens?'

"I'm often kidded by my counterparts in other parts of the country about all the antiquated beverage alcohol laws we have here in Massachusetts including our three tier system that was created as a safeguard at the end of Prohibition. And I tell them, 'You know, if we all abided by these laws, we'd all be making more money. That's one of the things our three-tier system does for us in this state. So, go ahead and make jokes about it being old and antiquated, but it's there for a reason. It's because all the problems related to alcoholic beverages are also old. It's got nothing to do with anything else. It's not the problems that change. It's how we get at them that change."

Were wholesalers caught between a rock and a hard place in this situation, since a number of their customers are supermarkets, we ask? "Well, in terms of my membership, which includes all the big guys, they all actively supported the opposition cause and participated to the fullest," Buckley points out. "Again, it was for the right reasons. There were obviously some conflicting business reasons not to do it. But the fact is that clearer minds prevailed. What this ballot question campaign, and the magnitude of the different aspects of the issue, did was to pull together a lot of folks who don't ordinarily work closely together, to say the least. But the greatest achievement of this entire campaign was seeing how clearer heads kept prevailing. And that's the bottom line, as far as I'm concerned.

"Towards the end, the best argument the 'Yes' people seemed to be putting forth was all about the convenience bit," says Buckley, "all that 'Mom should be able to buy wine with her roast' stuff. And I'm thinking, 'If this is the best argument you guys can come up with, then you're really in deep trouble.' That's when I felt we truly were going to win. Their whole campaign used so much smoke and mirror stuff, unfounded scare tactics, which bothered me a lot. There was so much magician stuff, raising the right hand and pointing and waving, while trying to prevent you from seeing what the hell the left hand was doing. They were saying things like, 'The liquor industry is funding them.' Well, yes, sure there was funding support from a number of different liquor industry interests, including so many of the little store guys, fighting for their livelihoods. But what the 'Yes' guys weren't talking about was the enormous funding all coming from what the giant corporate supermarket industry was pumping in to their side of the argument. The total was millions more than anything the liquor guys were pulling together. But, like in a Rocky film, the big favorites lost, and there's a message here.

"Massachusetts is still a part of this country that respects hard-working underdogs and a legitimate fight. I guess you could say I'm an old South Boston kid, and I've always loved a good fight. But the problem with this one was it was very one-sided, yet the underdog still won, fighting honestly. You asked me how I feel about it? How much more satisfying can it get than that? All I can say is that winning this fight gave me the greatest amount of gratification, and it has nothing to do with what I do for a living. It's because I truly do believe that we're all best served if the product is tightly controlled. And this speaks for what all my wholesaler members thought about it, too."

Committee member Dick Hurley was notably effective lining up support in his Cape Cod territory, working with local selectmen and the entire Cape's law enforcement community. "We got the Barnstable County sheriff on board, right up front," says Hurley, "and he dragged in other sheriffs from around the state as well as other police chiefs. Of course, it didn't hurt that I'm a reserve deputy and in the sheriff's civilian response training program. Anyway, I reached out for him, and he agreed with our message and signed on. In short order, we got the Yarmouth police chief, the Orleans police chief, and so on. Before you knew it, we had the entire law enforcement community on Cape Cod on our side. Cape Cod went first and became a campaign model, and the model quickly spread throughout the state, word of mouth style.

One of Hurley's most convincing arguments at meetings with local town selectmen focused on some amazing statistics about supermarket theft. "For instance, at just one Stop & Shop store," he points out, "the employee theft rate for just one year was estimated at around 68%, something like $25,OOO a year. We're talking just employee theft. OK? And if employees are stealing food items to this extent, what they hell are they going to do if they are turned lose on alcohol, which is vastly more desirable from a theft standpoint. Now, supermarkets hire underage employees in large numbers. They're at the loading dock, at the registers, all over the store. So, if $25,OOO theft, right now, is made up of food items, I think you can quickly see the extraordinary theft potential for alcohol if they're able to sell it. Also, bar codes can be shifted. I can put a bar code on a 12-pack of beer. I can print it up on my computer at home. Or I can just cut off the bar code from 12-pack of coke, run it through the scanner on the self check-out. It sells me the coke, and I've got the beer."

The only time the Stop & Shop showed up to debate him was one time before the town board in Dennis, he remembers. "Among my various colleagues, this just happened to be my night to take that meeting. I had to confront five S&S corporate people who came down from Quincy. Their corporate IT computer guy was there. He gave his presentation. Then I got up and started providing him and the town board with some examples of how his system could get bypassed, including the ones I just mentioned. Would you believe he had answers for none of them, absolutely nothing to say?

"And I think this demonstrates a key reason we were so successful here, as well as in other parts of the state," Hurley contends. "It's that all of our Committee messages were believable. People we talked to could hear the sincerity in our voices, read it on our faces. Our ads that we placed independently in our local newspapers portrayed that. So did letters to our local editors. And come election day, 61% of Cape Cod voters said a resounding 'No' at the polls. I have no doubt they realized we were sincere about our desire to control the sale of alcohol for the good of their communities. The other side came off as insincere and working from afar. We came off as hands-on and totally committed to our cause."

Undoubtedly, one of the most innovative and tireless leaders throughout the whole campaign effort was none other than Committee Chairman Peter Kessel, who seemed to be perpetually doing six things at once and appearing in 25 places at the same time. Indefatigable would be an understatement for what this guy contributed and the way he operated. It would take a book-length study to record all the strategic inputs, leadership initiatives and anecdotal observations that Peter had to offer during this whole fight. He is a born salesman, raconteur and motivator. The reason he accepted the role of Committee Chairman, he explains, is because, quite simply, he sensed he was the right man with enough good ideas and a thick enough skin for the job.

"Number one, I saw that somebody was going to have to be his own person," he observes, "and be able to look in the mirror and be comfortable with his decisions. Because many times you're not going to be popular, and you're going to have to persuade and motivate, and you're going have to come up with ideas and sell them, in order to get everyone to go down the same path. And you have to have enough ideas that everyone can participate and feel comfortable. But you also got to be smart enough to know when to shut up, because you got a lot of brainy people around you who will carry the ball for you. So, there were times when I would sit back and let things develop, and times when I forced my hand, which I'm sure pissed almost everyone off at one time or another. But you're steering all the time, motivating, selling, allowing people to see what can happen. And I was particularly blessed on this committee, having so many people so perfectly suited to specific job roles, like Buddy Carp, for example, and all his remarkable work creating our campaign website and establishing a data base that enabled us to communicate and keep in constant touch with every retailer in the state.

"Basically, the vision I was trying to get everyone to share with me was all about winning," Peter goes on. "This is what you got to get people thinking about in order to accomplish anything. It's the basic component. I come from a football background, and have a football player's mentality about doing things. Life to me is a series of game situations. Like it's first and 1O, or it's second and three, or we just had to punt. Sometimes, maybe we're on the sidelines watching. But the bottom line is you're always involved in the game in one way or another. There is a competitive side to me that takes on most responsibilities and challenges, and I put blinders on and will do everything in my power to get it done. And I can't say enough about how my committee responded to all this kind of thing. I had a great committee of problem solvers. I drew a line in the sand and told people to step over it, and they did it. And I kept reaching and getting them to step further and further, and felt comfortable that they were able to do that. This was the most satisfying thing about this remarkable group of such dedicated volunteers, having people onboard who were willing and able to follow the train track I was trying to lay down."

What were the most memorable moments of the whole experience, we ask? Would it be the town meeting in Seekonk with Chris Gasparro, early in the campaign, when they persuaded the board of selectmen to make Seekonk the first town in the Commonwealth to actually draft a non-binding resolution, agreeing to join the Vote No movement and not issue these licenses? "I can't tell you how we all walked out of that meeting hugging each other," Peter remembers. "It was so motivational that it pumped me and everybody else up for days. Now, we all knew we could get to other towns and do this." Or was it the taped TV commercial Vote No endorsement that Somerville Police Chief Bob Bradley was persuaded to make only a few weeks before the election. It was a powerhouse statement against supermarket alcohol sales in the interests of public safety and had such a profound vote-swinging impact in the opinion polls? Or perhaps it was all those little grassroots contributions done by so many campaign workers, like the guy who volunteered to sit for a whole weekend just putting polling place hold-up signs together for all of Norfolk county or the guy giving a heads-up call about 'you may want to push this and this with this group' or 'this needs a meeting in that town' kind of thing?

Peter's head is still swimming with all these images. "It's impossible to choose among them," he finally concludes. "All the pieces made a big difference and, in the end, that's how we got the word out. It was all about grassroots. So many guys just busted their ass. For those of us on the committee, this took 13 months, often two-and-a-half days a week out of the store, never mind our nights."

But there is one memory he will particularly treasure for the rest of his life, he says. "I've never really been part of a political thing, and I was at a good buddy's house election night watching the returns along with most of the committee guys. We were up smoking cigars, and what had just happened didn't sink in for quite some time. Then about two in the morning, I suddenly said to myself, "Holy Shit! Did we actually win this thing???" And there it was in the paper, the next day. Yes, we won. It wasn't a mistake. For a week, all of us on the committee were just so sky high. We could all look in the mirror. And that's when I felt this tremendous sense of accomplishment, not so much for myself, but for just participating in something that was so critically important for this industry, and with such a wonderful group of dedicated guys."

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