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Grocers Upset by Ban On Single-Beer Sales

By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2004; Page DZ06

Cases of cans and bottles of beer are stacked at the back of the tiny Family Food Market, and owner Bisrat Mekuria fears they'll stay there permanently.

It's not that his patrons won't want to buy beer and malt liquor -- a steady stream of customers pulled them out of his coolers Saturday night -- but the District will outlaw the purchase of single bottles on Nov. 12 in Ward 4. That's a lot of sales, one beer at a time, and the ban has Mekuria and other grocers scared and angry. Mekuria's store on New Hampshire near Georgia Avenue has been operating for nearly 20 years, but the ban threatens his business, he says.


Council member Adrian Fenty (D-Ward 4) meets with grocery store owners who are protesting a new law that forbids selling single beers in Ward 4. (Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)

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"It looks like discrimination to me. Apartheid," said Mekuria, 46.

Last Thursday, more than 100 grocers from across the city gathered at the Wilson Building to protest the law, which the D.C. Council passed in September, as discriminatory against small businesses and poorer customers.

Organizers said the code unfairly singles out mom-and-pop stores that count on single sales for a significant portion of their income.

They brandished signs that read "Stop the Ban on Single Beers in Ward 4" and "Stop The Discrimination Against Small Stores."

The law, passed Sept. 30, was signed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams, (D) and will be reviewed after four years.

Mekuria does not think his store can last that long.

The Family Food Market cannot compete with the local Safeway on the price of a six-pack, said Mekuria, and many of his customers will just walk south a few blocks to buy singles in Ward 1. He said the singles account for 40 to 50 percent of his sales most months.

The ban is the culmination of a long campaign by council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who drew much of the protesters' wrath last week. The law should have the short-term effect of creating cleaner streets and reducing loitering, Fenty said. In the long term, he hopes the measure will bring more upscale businesses along Georgia Avenue.

Just a block off Georgia Avenue on Upshur Street, the Town and Country Market has three refrigerators stocked with Old English "800" malt liquor, Steel Reserve and Zima in large cans and bottles. Jamarr Hubbard, 44, cradled a bag of cheese puffs and as she hauled an armful of beer cans to the counter for a small party with friends.

The lifelong Petworth resident said the purchase was rare, and she looks forward to the single-sales ban.

"It might be good," she said. "A lot of people just bum enough to get a can and then sit out and drink."

But Samuel Gass, who lives across the street from the Family Food Market, found the ban less convincing. After a long day of carpentry, Gass said he usually stops in the store for two single 22-ounce beers.

Gass said that he will just have to buy a six-pack because he wants to support the store. But for Gass and others, six-pack money is not always in the budget. The folks who loiter and litter will always loiter and litter, he said, even if they have to walk a few blocks down Georgia Avenue to Ward 1 to buy the singles. "It'll be the same thing," he said.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company