Beer-wine battle is brewing Virginia outlet's warehouse-style store viewed as a threat

Long Gate site eyed

Small retailers oppose license sought for mega-store

August 07, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

McLEAN, Va. -- Picture a typical grocery store. Fluorescent lights above. Tile floors below. Children circling parents who push shopping carts down the aisles.

But instead of Cheerios, Haagen-Dazs and Tide, the shelves at Total Beverage are stocked with bottles of 1994 Mas des Bressandes Cabernet Syrah, six-packs of Dixie Crimson Voodoo Ale, cases upon cases of Budweiser and thousands of other varieties of beer and wine.

Despite opposition from small Howard County liquor stores, the Virginia-based beer and wine retailer wants to replicate this scene at Long Gate Center in Ellicott City, with plans for a 15,000-square-foot warehouse-style store, its first such mega-store in Maryland.

Based on Total Beverage's McLean store and two others in Northern Virginia, here's what Howard residents could expect if the county liquor board grants the store a license:

Prices that often are slightly better than -- but don't necessarily beat -- competitors' sale prices.

A selection of 5,000 wines, 500 varieties of beer and 200 brands of soda and bottled waters.

A sales staff eager to educate buyers and sell them everything from Transylvanian beer to Lebanese wine.

Customers who will drive across county lines and load up with $100 purchases.

Other local customers who will remain loyal to quaint, smaller stores.

But Total Beverage -- a subsidiary of Landover-based Dart Group Corp., owner of Crown Books and Trak Auto -- still faces a major hurdle before it can set up shop in Howard County with a store larger than any alcoholic beverage retailer in Maryland.

Smaller liquor stores that fear they could be driven out of business have banded together to oppose a beer and wine license for Total Beverage. The case comes up for a hearing before the county liquor board in October.

The chain has had mixed success in Virginia. Two stores -- in Manassas and Dale City -- closed after slow sales. However, three stores -- in McLean, Chantilly and at Landmark in Northern Virginia -- are moving beer and wine by the caseloads. In McLean on a recent Saturday, shoppers could be seen pushing their carts out of the store, leaving them next to the curb, walking to their cars and driving up for grocery-style loading.

A pony-tailed man, identifying himself only as Pete, hoisted a keg of Rolling Rock into the bed of his black Mazda pickup. Pete said some of his friends were coming over later for a cookout.

The civilian Navy employee said he stops at Total Beverage twice a week, often just to grab a six-pack from the store's extensive microbrewery selection.

"They're awesome. They're awesome," Pete said. "I don't get into wine, but I hear that's pretty good. Gotta go. Keg's getting warm."

Pete aside, many Total Beverage shoppers do get into wine.

Ken Martin and Michele Paige, preparing for their wedding ceremony, picked up a case of Rosemount Estate, an Australian wine.

Nearby, a 30-something designer was climbing into her cherry red Mazda Miata, its small trunk filled with $100 worth of California wines, champagne and beer from Japan and Italy. She had made the trip from her home in downtown Washington.

Most of the shoppers interviewed outside Total Beverage said they had come for selection more than price -- although a casual survey of stores near Total Beverage in McLean showed the prices were often better at Total Beverage, if only slightly. John Kirby, who bought a case of Harpoon beer and several bottles of wine for a total of $95, said he shops at Total Beverage for the variety. Of the prices, he said, "You're not getting any big break."

Occasionally -- and this appears to be rare -- Total Beverage is out of a certain brand. Two weeks ago, for example, the McLean store didn't have any Columbia Crest Merlot -- a wine that sells for about $10 to $12 per 750 ml. bottle -- even though it was available at nearby Giant, Safeway and Ceciles Wine Celler.

Ceciles, which is within a half-mile of Total Beverage, could offer some lessons for small liquor stores in Howard County on how to compete. Salesman Jonas Gustafsson said the nearby Total Beverage initially drew away curious customers. But they eventually came back to Ceciles, with its wood floors and staff who know their customers' names.

The staffers say they've stayed competitively priced with Total.

Still, Total Beverage's selection has made a believer out of John Philip Bachner, a public relations consultant and wine expert from Northern Virginia who typically prefers shopping at smaller, traditional wine stores.

Bachner, who has more than 3,000 bottles of wine in his cellar, showed up at Ceciles one recent Saturday afternoon hoping to find a 1994 Mas des Bressandes Cabernet Syrah.

Ceciles had a bottle of 1993 Mas des Bressandes Cabernet Syrah -- but nothing from 1994. So Bachner headed for the bright lights of Total Beverage.

Ten minutes later, he was wheeling a cart filled with 10 bottles of 1994 Mas des Bressandes Cabernet Syrah at $11.49 a bottle. More nectar for his cellar.

"Admittedly," Bachner deadpanned, "I have more wine than I'll be able to drink in my lifetime."

Pub Date: 8/07/96

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