By Dan Moffett
For the third time, Publix tried to persuade the Manalapan Town Commission to allow a free-standing wine and liquor store near the company’s new supermarket in Plaza del Mar.
And for a third time, commissioners politely said thank you for your service, but no.
“You’re offering a convenience, but the community is telling us they don’t want that convenience,” Mayor Keith Waters said during the commission meeting on Oct. 23. “The feedback has not been positive.”
The opposition again was largely focused on the proposed liquor store’s proximity to the beach — roughly 200 yards. Commissioners worried that students on spring break would find it too easy to abuse alcohol and party in places and ways they shouldn’t.
“I’m worried about underage drinking,” said Vice Mayor Peter Isaac. “We could be enabling binge drinking at the beach.”
Commissioner Clark Appleby said even a “high-end liquor store” would be likely to “invite a certain crowd” that would cause problems for police and residents.
Mark Klein, general manager of the Eau Palm Beach Resort and Spa, told the commission that a carryout liquor store would hurt the hotel’s business. Klein said that, though the Eau serves alcohol in its bars and restaurant, the drinking occurs in a controlled environment.
“No doubt that hard liquor does encourage poor decision-making,” Klein said. “However, every one of our service staff is trained to recognize potential overindulgence and poor behavior. We do have controls.”
The commission voted 6-1 against Publix, with Commissioner Hank Siemon siding with the company. Waters did not have a vote.
“I don’t see the moral hazard and health concern,” Siemon said. “We have a history with Publix. We know what they do and they do it very well. Publix is a good neighbor, and I think they would handle it very well.”
Matt Buehler, a retail vice president with plaza landlords Kitson & Partners, told the commission that Publix’s request for a separate liquor store was necessitated by a Florida law that prohibits selling hard liquor inside supermarkets. Only beer and wine are allowed in the main store.
“There has to be separation,” he said. “This is a retail package store. It is not a bar.”
Buehler promised the commission that the liquor store would be “an extension of the Publix retail store” and run as efficiently as the grocery operation, with a security guard on site.
But commissioners, as they have said repeatedly over the last two years, were steadfast against the idea.
“It diminishes the value of the property in the neighborhood,” Mayor Pro Tem Simone Bonutti said. “I’m looking at the public health and safety of our kids, too.”
When the original plans for building the Publix first came to town officials over two years ago, a liquor store some 30 feet west of the supermarket was included. But the company, faced with opposition, pulled the store from the site plan before the project got underway. Last March, with the supermarket’s grand opening nearing, Publix again brought the liquor store issue to the commission, and commissioners voted it down as they did in October.
Twenty years ago, Publix stayed out of the liquor business. But as competition within the supermarket industry intensified and grew even more cutthroat, the company has gradually changed course. Over the last decade, Publix has acquired or built more than 100 liquor stores throughout the Southeast as a way to maximize profits.
According to industry analysts and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a liquor store can generate more than twice the profit margin per square foot as its companion supermarket next door.
Waters said he would not be surprised if the company keeps trying.
“I have a sneaking suspicion we’re going to see this again,” the mayor said. “I would hope logic would tell you that to move forward would be moving forward against the wishes of the community.”