Liquor sales at all-time high

Bo Gemmell

Kent’s alcohol trends mirror those of the state.

Overall booze sales spiked statewide in 2009, and sales in this college town are no exception.

The annual report from the Division of Liquor Control highlights 2009 as a record year for spirituous liquor sales — beverages containing more than 21 percent alcohol by volume — with $729.9 million in sales.

The Akron Beacon Journal reported that sales at state-commissioned liquor stores are up, but sales at bars and restaurants are down. ??

Business at the bars?

Joe Ricciardi, owner of the Venice Café at Franklin Avenue and Erie Street, isn’t surprised that customers are shying away from bars and flocking to the liquor stores.

“We lost 30 percent (of our sales) from the smoking ban,” he said.

Other factors Ricciardi credits for lower sales are Portage County’s high unemployment rate, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked at 9.8 percent in November. He said customers also fear heightened enforcement of Ohio’s traffic laws that limit drivers to a maximum .08 percent blood-alcohol concentration. ?

Despite the setbacks, other professionals aren’t as worried.

Elaine Hullihen is a bartender at the Pufferbelly on Franklin Avenue. She juggles that job with bartending at the Professor’s Pub on Main Street. Hullihen, now in her fifth year in bartending, said she hasn’t seen much change in alcohol sales at either location.

“Things have been pretty steady,” she said. “People who buy the cheap drinks are still buying cheap drinks, and people who buy the more expensive ones are still buying those.”?

She said top sellers include inexpensive Kamchatka vodka as well as the pricier Jameson Irish Whiskey.

Retail sales climb

Kent’s only liquor store mirrors the statewide trend. Jeff Farmer, manager of TLC Wine & Liquor on West Main Street, said retail sales are high but wholesale sales to bars and restaurants are on the decline.

“For this store it’s a bump in the road,” he said. “For the state it’s significant.”?

One of TLC’s former managers, Travis Sessions, said it helps to relate economic factors with humans’ rationales for drinking.

“When somebody has a good day, they drink to celebrate,” he said. “When somebody has a bad day, they drink to deal with it.”?

Sessions, who now works for 101 Bottles of Beer on the Wall, said “party beers” such as Natural Light and Bud Light are the strongest sellers. He said customers come to 101 Bottles to buy diluted versions of popular liquors when the state-commissioned liquor stores close. ?

Looking ahead

Sessions said he expects people to start buying higher quality beer as the economy improves. He thinks people will visit bars and restaurants more when times get better.

?Even if customers eventually spend more money, the Venice’s Ricciardi still recognizes the obstacles of owning a business. He said running a bar isn’t as affordable as it used to be.

When he started working at the Venice in 1983, everything from electric to alcohol cost less.

“Everybody wanted to own a bar in the ‘80s,” he said.

The Division of Liquor Control’s annual report showed a decrease in the issuance of new liquor permits from 2116 in 2008 to 1510. Permit renewals show a slight increase from 23,380 in 2008 to 23,515 last year.

Ohio’s Division of Liquor Control regulates the production, distribution and sale of all alcoholic beverages in the state. It sells spirituous liquor through 442 private businesses contracted as its sales agents.

The majority of the Division’s 2009 revenue went to the General Revenue Fund. The Department of Health and the Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services received the lowest distribution of alcohol-based revenue.

Contact public affairs reporter Bo Gemmell at [email protected].