Restaurateurs are crying foul over a proposal by the Wegmans supermarket chain for changes to state alcohol licensing laws that would allow its Northborough store to serve beer and wine in its café while also selling alcohol from its shelves.
“I’m against it, personally,” said Sue Ryan, manager of Harry’s Restaurant, a diner in Westborough.
A few miles east on Route 9 from the lone Wegmans in Massachusetts, Harry’s specializes in serving cold beer and fried clams. “It would be competition,” she said.
Ryan spoke a day after the Restaurant and Business Alliance, a Boston-based trade and lobbying group, released a statement criticizing the Wegmans proposal.
“Restaurants and businesses didn’t know when they built stores, signed leases, and hired people that this rule change would happen,” said Alliance president Dave Andelman in the statement. “We’re concerned that this rule change will damage small, local restaurants and liquor stores.”
Last month, Wegmans proposed changing the law that prohibits retail sales of alcohol, as in a package store, and restaurant-style sales by the drink in the same establishment, saying its supermarkets in other states commonly do so. The proposal opened up a debate about where drinking should be allowed — a traditionally controversial topic in Massachusetts communities.
Helping to spur concern is the Rochester, N.Y.-based chain’s expansion plans. Roughly 2½ years after opening its location on Route 20 in Northborough, Wegmans is preparing to launch a store in Chestnut Hill this spring, one in Burlington in the fall, and another in the University Station development in Westwood next year. It has also proposed a new store in Boston near Fenway Park.
In a statement e-mailed to the Globe on Tuesday, Wegmans spokeswoman Jo Natale said the company simply wants to expand its offerings.
“Our model is unique, with a much larger restaurant operation than most food retailers,” Natale wrote. “We aren’t out to hurt anyone’s business. We just want our customers to be able to have a glass of wine or beer when they are having a meal in our café.”
State Representative Harold Naughton, a Democrat from Clinton, has sponsored legislation that would lift the prohibition, which likely stems from Colonial-era blue laws that have been weakened over the past decade.
Northborough’s Board of Selectmen also supports the change. The board sent a letter to Beacon Hill saying Wegmans has been a good corporate citizen whose managers responsibly oversee sales of alcohol.
If the proposed change is approved, Wegmans would have to apply to Northborough for a separate license to pour alcohol. If the town approved the application, the supermarket would then seek permission from the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.
The owner of A.J. Tomaiolo’s Italian Restaurant in Northborough, Tony Tomaiolo, said he was disappointed that Naughton and the selectmen didn’t ask him or other local business owners for their opinions about changing the law.
“It’s so hard to stop the big guy,” he said. “The town has open arms for these people. They give them carte blanche to do whatever they need to do to succeed, and we have to work harder.”
Naughton and members of the Board of Selectmen didn’t respond to calls for comment.
Caroline Johnson, the owner of CJ’s Steakloft, about 500 feet from Tomaiolo’s restaurant on West Main Street and about 2 miles from Wegmans, said she probably wouldn’t lose customers to the store’s 300-seat cafe if it starts serving beer and wine. Her patrons are seeking a different experience, she said.
But Johnson still does not support the proposal to change the law. She said Wegmans has taken sales from local butchers, fish shops, and bakeries in the same way Wal-Mart and malls have affected retail stores. While admitting that she occasionally shops at Wegmans, Johnson said she doesn’t want to give the supermarket more opportunities to eclipse other businesses.
“Wegmans is a wonderful store. It’s almost like being at Disneyland,” said Johnson. “Why don’t they just enjoy their success? Lay low and step back. There’s no breathing room left. You cannot be a hog. Give a little bit to the little guy.”John Dyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.