State lawmakers plan to challenge a decision allowing a recently opened Columbus convenience store to legally sell cold beer along with hard liquor.

The new Ricker’s convenience store and gas station at 25th and North Cherry streets, and a similar store in Sheridan, are at the center of a controversy about obtaining alcohol permits normally given to restaurants that allow the new stores to sell cold beer.

Indiana law states only liquor stores can sell chilled beer. All others must sell it at room temperature.

When Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long learned the two stores had obtained the alcohol licenses legally through a loophole because tables and chairs are in the

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stores, and Tex-Mex food is served, they announced the General Assembly will attempt to stop others from following Ricker’s example.

So far the Ricker’s at 1711 25th St., which is about a block away from Columbus North High School, and the Sheridan store, are the only two to receive the licenses to sell cold beer.

State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, said when he walked into the store Monday, he saw a narrow cabinet of liquor products next to the cigarettes. After turning right and walking to the back of the store, Smith said he spotted a large cooler stocked with cold beer behind the restaurant counter.

Both the beer cooler and the liquor are located behind counters in designated “employee-only” areas.

The new Columbus location technically complies with state requirements because it has a sit-down Tex-Mex restaurant, Smith said.

In addition, he discovered Ricker’s had obtained the proper license from the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission to sell both cold beer and carryout liquor.

“If we don’t change the current law, anyone who wants to start a restaurant can become a carryout liquor store, too,” Smith said. “We need to determine whether that’s good public policy.”

Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission spokeswoman Kim Chew said her organization cannot make public comments on the matter. Although no new legislation has been created yet, Smith said he anticipates lawmakers will come up with a fix during this session.

Jay Ricker, Ricker’s chairman of the board, says he expects an amendment will be attached to a pending bill to close the loophole allowing cold beer sales.

While he doesn’t believe the General Assembly can make retroactive changes that will stop the practice in Columbus and Sheridan, Ricker believes lawmakers will try to prevent more businesses from following his lead.

The negative reaction from lawmakers caught him off-guard, he said.

“I don’t see anything wrong with it,” said Ricker, who visited his 25th Street store Friday. “We followed all the rules, and even took steps beyond what the state requires.”

One thing that’s wrong with what the company is doing, Smith said, is that liquor stores don’t allow minors inside their building. Ricker’s has no age limits nor what Smith considers a well-established separation of the liquor from customers, he said.

The Columbus lawmaker said Ricker’s isn’t following the law’s intent.

When the General Assembly approved changes to allow certain restaurants leniency in alcoholic beverage sales, “I don’t believe anyone intended to allow a convenience store to become a carryout liquor store,” Smith said.

But with automotive technology, proposed higher tobacco taxes and health concerns all combining to lower gasoline and cigarettes sales, convenience stores must innovate and adapt to survive, Ricker said.

People are interested in one-stop shopping, Ricker said. He said he has gone to other states where convenience stores sell cold beer and liquor.

Supermarkets with pharmacies that sell hard liquor are an example of why Ricker believes this is not setting a new and dangerous precedent, he said.

In a statement released Thursday, the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers accused Ricker’s of flaunting longstanding public policy by thumbing their nose at state lawmakers and the courts.

“The Indiana General Assembly has never given permission for a gas station to sell hard liquor, beer and wine for both on-premise consumption and carryout sales,” association President and CEO Patrick Tamm said.

Ricker said his business is being challenged by a liquor store industry that wants to keep their monopoly on cold beer sales.

Since his license limits the amount of space he can devote to sales of alcoholic beverages to no more than 300 square feet, Ricker insists his company is no real threat to that industry because he will have limited stock.

But since liquor stores are subject to regulations that Ricker’s is not, Smith said the convenience store chain is creating an uneven playing field.

Those regulations include training requirements for liquor store clerks, an inability to locate in unincorporated areas and a restriction on selling cold water or soda, Tamm said.

The 25th Street location is the third of four Ricker’s stations either existing or planned for the Columbus area. Stores already opened are located at West County Road 450S in Ogilville, and off U.S. 31 in the Edinburgh area.

Construction on the fourth store, expected to open this summer, is underway on the southeast corner of the intersection of Jonathan Moore Pike and Westwood Boulevard.

Indiana law

Indiana Code 7.1-5-10-11: “It is unlawful for the holder of a beer dealer’s permit to offer or display for sale, or sell, barter, exchange or give away a bottle, can, container, or package of beer that was iced or cooled by the permittee before or at the time of the sale, exchange, or gift. A person who knowingly or intentionally violates this section commits a Class B misdemeanor.

Indiana Code 7.1-5-10-24: “This does not apply to the licensed premises of a drug store, grocery store, or restaurant that has a retailer’s permit for a restaurant. The restaurant must be completely separated by a wall and have separate entrances.”

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.