Why Philly stop-and-go violations have gone unenforced for so long

Store owner Michelle Tran said she’s reported violations, and ‘they didn’t do anything about it.’

Sydney Schaefer / Billy Penn

Update, 11:39 a.m.

Take away the possible ban on bulletproof glass, and Wayne Junction Deli owner Michelle Tran likes the recently passed bill regulating Philly stop-and-go stores. She welcomes tighter regulations for the convenience stores that sell booze. She said as much while streaming Thursday’s Council session with cashier Sybil Morgan inside City Hall.

Tran is skeptical about whether authorities will act upon violations under the new bill; the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board says the city bill doesn’t have much, if any, impact on state authority.

For years, violations by stop-and-go stores have been mostly ignored — met with light fines and a rubber stamp renewal of their liquor licenses. Calls to police about nuisance patrons, Tran said, have been dismissed. As Cindy Bass’ bill becomes law, and an even more powerful state law regulating liquor licenses hits the books next year, will stronger punishments finally be given out?

“Stop it before it starts,” Morgan said. “Don’t wait until another [nuisance store] goes up.”

City Councilwoman Cindy Bass’ 8th District, in the Northwest section of the city, aims to amend how easy it is for bad operators to hang onto their liquor licenses. Billy Penn found licenses for 14 stores that would be considered stop-and-gos in that district. Half had violations in the last two years, and many were repeat offenders. The violations included not having adequate food on premises, operating without a health permit and serving to minors. Yet fines meted out ranged between $250 and $1,400, and all seven stores with violations since 2015 had their liquor licenses recently renewed by the LCB.

Nuisance businesses

This summer, Kenny’s Steaks & Seafood on Wayne Avenue, near Tran’s store, became a symbol of a Bass’ movement to better regulate stop-and-gos after she visited it with neighborhood protesters and media. By that point, Kenny’s had already received a violation for not having adequate food a year earlier, according to state records.

Tran said she reported problems to city and state officials about another store on the 4800-block of Wayne Avenue, across from Happy Hollow Recreation Center. Neighbors complained, too.

“We notified City Council, notified the state,” said Tran, a Philly native who said she’s owned her deli for seven years. “They didn’t do anything about it.”

Bass argued Tran has been part of the problem. She cited Tran’s store as an example of a problematic establishment in her closing speech during Thursday’s council session, saying it profited off people’s addictions: “You created a culture and climate of foolishness in your business and in city neighborhoods.”

Liquor license enforcement

Elizabeth Brassell, director of communications for the LCB, said the organization has had little power to act after violations, because historically the LCB has only had the power to renew or reject license renewals. A license is almost always renewed, except when major crimes like drug activity or shootings have taken place. Another group, the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement of the Pennsylvania State Police, is charged with investigating complaints and levying punishments.

“The licensee has due process and if we object to or refuse the license they can appeal to the Court of Common Pleas,” Brassell said. “It’s not uncommon for the Court of Common Pleas to reject our refusal to renew.”

A State Police spokesperson said in an email the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement takes complaints seriously and every attempt is made to investigate complaints in a timely manner.

Act 44, passed earlier this year, grants new authority to the LCB starting in 2018. The LCB, rather than the State Police, will now investigate licensees. The board will have the power to suspend a liquor license based on violations, but not to shut down a store. Brassell said the Council bill will have little or no effect on the LCB.

“Our authority is pretty clearly defined in Act 44,” she said. “I’m not sure there’s anything in a city bill to expand our authority under state law or restrict the authority.”

The bulletproof glass issue

Bass said her bill “would conform the city with state law.”

It amends city law to require restaurants to obtain either a “small” or “large” establishment license. Stop-and-gos, which have either restaurant or eating place liquor licenses from the state, would have to be considered “large” because the LCB requires them to contain enough seating for at least 30 people. The bill would force large establishments to maintain a public restroom on their premises, which is not mandated by the LCB.

It also gives the city Department of Licenses and Inspections the opportunity to ban the use of bulletproof glass by 2021.

Tran said her store extended its bulletproof glass partition to reach the ceiling a few years ago after a robbery attempt.

Though she was outside City Council’s chambers Thursday, she repeated a divisive refrain causing tension during the session, with owners blaming customers from the community and the community blaming owners.

“The business owners do not even sell the loosies, the shots, small liquor bottles,” she said. “It’s the people.”