2008-08-09 / Top News

Ordering, Service Problems Voiced at Liquor Control Hearing

Northern Michigan liquor license holders voiced their concerns about the reliability and accuracy of their state-regulated alcohol distribution agents at a Liquor Control Commission hearing on Mackinac Island Wednesday, July 30. Problems with ordering and with deliveries were the main complaints.

The Michigan Liquor Control Commission (LCC) is responsible for certifying and regulating the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcohol in the state. Restaurants, bars, grocery stores, and other establishments are licensed by the state to sell liquor, and alcohol distributors, or authorized distribution agents (ADAs), are also regulated by the state commission, and contract with manufacturers to deliver their products to the retailers.

The LCC usually holds two hearings a year, and scheduled the Mackinac Island hearing to have a northern venue. In addition to Mackinac Island licensees, several retailers from the Petoskey area attended.

Last year, two of Michigan's largest ADAs, J. Lewis Cooper Co. and General Wine & Liquor, merged to create Great Lakes Wine and Spirits. Great Lakes, along with National Wine and Spirits Corporation, provides alcohol to most establishments in northern Michigan.

Although Great Lakes said the merger would make purchasing and distribution easier, liquor licensees said changes have hurt business.

One problem is ordering, said Peter Dewey, general manager of the Village Inn restaurants. The merger changed the date and time most licensees order, from Monday at noon to Sunday at noon. His company has restaurants at St. Ignace, Pellston, and Mackinac Island.

"A responsible business takes inventory," Mr. Dewey said. "If you move the days around, it becomes a burden."

He noted that with restaurants in three towns, ordering is especially complicated.

"We have three different days for three different restaurants," he told the LCC.

Brian Pizzuti, vice-president and general sales manager of National Wine and Spirits Corporation's Premier Division, said the company is doing its best to work out the distribution problems.

National Wine and Spirits upgraded its distribution warehouse in Grand Rapids, he said, and will start a new "zone delivery" system that will send trucks in every direction.

Nevertheless, he advised, "People should order as much ahead of time as possible."

Steve Moskwa of Horn's Gaslight Bar and Yankee Rebel Tavern said the Sunday noon deadline is "unreasonable." He also noted that the distributors had neglected to tell him about the deadline change when it was made.

"We ordered, and none of us got our liquor that first week," he told the LCC.

The changed deadline is also harder on employees, said Debra Orr of Seabiscuit Café. Because the cut-off time is Sunday at noon, employees have to stay late doing inventory, often until 4 or 5 a.m., after working Saturday night.

"It's inconsiderate of both the employees and the licensees," she said.

Sam Barnwell, purchasing director of Iroquois hotel, also said he found the Sunday deadline a problem, citing Monday at noon as an ideal time, because liquor could be delivered Thursday or Friday, in time for the weekend.

"It worked well for all of us," he said.

Mr. Pizzuti was the only ADA representative to appear at the hearing, a fact that disappointed LCC Chair Nida Samona and Commissioner Patrick Gagliardi, a former member of the Michigan House of Representatives from Drummond Island.

"Shame on other distributors for not showing up today," Ms. Samona said. "We wanted them to be here so they could hear the issues."

Commissioner Gagliardi echoed her statements.

"I am disappointed," he said, adding that problems with service and distribution will only hamper the business northern Michigan licensees need in the summer.

Distribution itself wasn't the only problem licensees voiced. Another concern, expressed by Mary Callewaert of Mary's Bistro and The Island House hotel, was the inaccuracy of shipping confirmations. Although licensees receive e-mail confirmations of their orders, she said, the delivery dates are often wrong by two or three days. Sometimes, she said, orders don't show up at all.

"I always get my shipment two days after I am supposed to," she said. "Every Wednesday and Friday is a surprise. It's hard to know what to order, because I might get last week's order, or this week's, or both at the same time."

James Larocca, beverage manager for Grand Hotel, added that he once received confirmation for delivery May 28 after placing an order on June 5.

"When I get a delivery date," he said, "it's off."

Mr. Moskwa said his orders are always two days late, arriving on Thursday instead of Tuesday, as promised.

Both Mr. Larocca and Ms. Callewaert said they had no problems with ordering last year.

Another problem with the ordering system, Mr. Larocca said, is the lack of customer service on weekends. While licensees are supposed to order on Sunday, they cannot call anyone with questions until Monday.

"I try to get our order in by the deadline, but since the deadline is on the weekend, there's no emergency call-in number," Mr. Larocca said.

Mr. Pizzuti said he hopes to have most of the kinks of the merger ironed out as soon as possible.

"We view the Island as so important," he said. "We want to have good service."

The commission will take all comments into account for a future discussion with Great Lakes Wine and Spirits, Mr. Gagliardi said.

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