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Cumberland Farms suspends effort to expand beer and wine sales

Citing the pandemic, the convenience store chain won't pursue a statewide referendum vote

Wine and beer are available at a limited number of food stores in Massachusetts. And mom-and-pop liquor stores want to keep it that way.
Wine and beer are available at a limited number of food stores in Massachusetts. And mom-and-pop liquor stores want to keep it that way.The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Cumberland Farms is suspending its effort to increase the number of food stores permitted to sell wine and beer through a voter ballot initiative.

In a statement, the ubiquitous New England convenience store chain said the coronavirus pandemic “required its coalition of retail supporters to refocus their collective attention to the health and wellbeing of their associates as they continue to provide uninterrupted essential services to their communities.”

As a result, Cumberland Farms no longer plans to submit to the state the signatures it had gathered to certify the proposed initiative.

“In light of the disruptions to the retail sector caused by COVID-19, the proponents of this initiative have made the difficult but necessary decision to refocus our resources toward the more immediate needs of our critical workforce, our loyal customers, and our host communities,” Matt Durand, the head of public policy, said in the company’s emailed statement. “Leading an eight-figure ballot measure campaign is not a prudent course of action at this particular moment in history.”

The measure would have progressively raised the number of food store locations permitted to sell beer and wine, from the current cap of nine per company, before eventually abolishing the limit.

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It’s a change long sought by larger national retailers — and long opposed by the owners of local package stores, who have argued that it would destroy their small businesses.

The Massachusetts Package Stores Association, a Westborough-based group with about 700 members, hailed the news that Cumberland Farms had abandoned its campaign.

“Local mom and pop retail stores across the state are breathing a genuine sigh of relief in learning that Cumberland Farms and [its] corporate allies were unable to meet the . . . signature threshold,” Robert Mellion, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

“In the meantime,” he added, “local retailers of beer, wine and spirits can rightfully focus on rebuilding the state economy, safeguarding against illegal sales to minors, and safely serving customers.”

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The perennial fight over the state’s decades-old liquor-licensing laws doesn’t appear poised to end anytime soon, however.

Mellion’s group is arguing that Massachusetts needs to change its ballot initiative process to “prevent large corporate interests from abusing” it in the future.

And Cumberland Farms is vowing to bring the initiative back during the 2022 election cycle, unless the warring booze business factions can reach a “negotiated resolution” in the Legislature.

“Make no mistake: the issue of safe and fair competition in the beverage alcohol marketplace remains a top legislative priority for Cumberland Farms and other food stores,” Durand said. “As we’ve said from the beginning, we’re prepared to take this effort all the way to the voters if necessary. That position has not changed, and I look forward to the next biennial election cycle.”

A task force convened in 2017 by Treasurer Deborah Goldberg to review the state’s alcohol laws recommended a series of changes, including loosening the cap on off-premise retailers. However, lawmakers have yet to implement the recommendations.

Jon Chesto of the Globe staff contributed to this report.




Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.