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Local Wine Stores Say Whole Foods' New Liquor License Will Squeeze Them Out

By Emily Frost | May 23, 2013 12:21pm
 Local wine merchants say Whole Foods' expansion will put them out of business. 
Neighboring Wine Stores Fight Against Whole Foods
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UPPER WEST SIDE — Local wine and liquor store owners are crying foul at Whole Foods' attempt to sell liquor at its wine store — a move the mom-and-pop shops say will put them out of business.

The application comes after the grocery chain broke promises, the owners, allege, to work and partner with local sellers to ensure they could keep their businesses thriving. 

Murray Rosen, the manager of Columbus Wines and Spirits, at West 96th Street and Columbus Avenue, just two blocks away from Whole Foods, said corporation made a verbal agreement in 2009 to the State Liquor Authority and the local community board "that they would only sell wine" — a promise he said they're now breaking with their April application for a liquor license. 

 Murray Rosen is the manager at Columbus Wines and Spirits. 
Murray Rosen is the manager at Columbus Wines and Spirits. 
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DNAinfo/ Emily Frost

Rosen said Whole Foods' reversal, which he called "predatory," makes him concerned for his store's future.

"We're surviving," he said. "However, we do have a differentiator, which is that we have a liquor license."

Columbus Wine and Spirits, owned by Iris and Bob Sandow, has been in the neighborhood for more than 20 years, and though it has a loyal clientele, Rosen said, big box stores can offer huge discounts.

"If people can save a few dollars," he said. "They're going to look elsewhere."

"The mom and pops lose when big boxes sell liquor," agreed Mike Mckeon, a representative for nearby Gotham Wines and Liquors and other area stores.

Whole Foods representative Michael Sinatra said the company went out of its way to work with the owners.

"It’s out of respect for the community that we took our time with [the liquor license application]," he said.

Sinatra said the Columbus Avenue location, if approved, would be its only location selling liquor in the city. The customers have been demanding liquor at other locations, too, he added.

"We’ve done really well with artisanal spirits in our stores in New Jersey," Sinatra said.    

The local owners' disappointment over the pending liquor license application, which is not yet scheduled for any public SLA hearings, comes on the heels of an already dysfunctional relationship with the giant retailer that dates back to 2009, when it first moved in.

Initially, Whole Foods promised Columbus Wine and Spirits and other local wine stores, including Gotham Wines and Liquors, that it would promote the stores' organic and local liquors with signs and flyers, Iris Sandow said. 

The store also agreed to regularly give local owners a $65 gift certificate for supplies for wine tastings, for items like cheese and crackers, Sandow said, offers that were supposed to be Whole Foods' efforts to smooth away their opposition to its arrival.

But a few months into the partnership, contact with Whole Foods dried up and they became unreachable, Rosen said. 

"They just stonewalled us," he said. 

Mckeon said Gotham Liquor's owners weren't entirely surprised by the alleged tactics. 

"We didn’t have very high expectations," Mckeon said. "They successfully lived down to those expectations."

And Sandow said when she went in to share a flyer with a Whole Foods manager a few months later in keeping with the agreement, the manager had no idea what she was talking about. 

Whole Foods concedes it wasn't proactive in asking for flyers or in providing supplies, but that the interest from the local owners disappeared, too, and no one contacted them, Sinatra said.

"They had initially taken us up on that offer but it just sort of fizzled out," he said.

Sinatra insisted that the store has been a good community partner.

"We are not there as a big corporate giant," he said.

Community Board 7, which does not get to weigh in on the liquor license application, said it was nevertheless investigating the issue, which Sandow brought to its attention in May. 

"We are trying to set up a conversation with the right person at Whole Foods, and then assess how to proceed," said CB7 Chair Mark Diller.