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Wegmans might be building liquor store in Cheektowaga

Another “don’t call it Wegmans” liquor store may be coming to Transit Road in Cheektowaga.

The Rochester-based grocer recently filed a development review application with the Town of Cheektowaga to develop a site in the parking lot of its Losson Road store at 4960 Transit Road. The project’s specs are identical to other Wegmans-related liquor stores across upstate New York, including its 15,700-square-foot size.

Wegmans said it hasn’t identified a tenant for the development and wouldn’t until it gets all the necessary municipal approvals.

“We hope to build an out-parcel that would be leased to complementary retail tenants, none of which have been identified as yet,” said Michele Mehaffy, a Wegmans spokeswoman.

Wegmans has used the word “complementary” in reference to out-parcel liquor stores in the past. In October, Wegmans spokeswoman Jo Natale said Wegmans has “for many, many years leased to retail that complements our business.”

Wegmans has maintained that liquor stores on Wegmans properties are separate entities, merely leasing space owned by the grocer.

New York State Law prohibits grocery stores from selling alcohol other than beer, wine coolers and certain premixed alcoholic beverages. Wegmans lobbied the state for years to repeal that law, but dropped the fight in 2007, after Nicole Wegman bought an existing liquor store and moved it to a plaza near a Wegmans store in Pittsford. Nicole Wegman, daughter of Wegmans CEO Danny Wegman, sold the store to another family member before opening Amherst St Wine & Liquor on Wegmans property in the Black Rock section of Buffalo.

State laws also prohibit anyone from owning more than one liquor store at a time, but don’t prevent multiple ownership among members of the same family. A handful of independent liquor stores, owned or co-owned by Wegmans employees or members of the Wegmans family, have popped up around the state.

Rival liquor store owners complain that Wegmans is skirting New York State laws, which puts them at a disadvantage. It’s not that they’re afraid of competition, it’s that they view it as unfair competition.

“We’ve followed the same rules since the end of Prohibition,” Matt Heubach, whose wife Lesle is the third-generation owner of Gates Circle Wine and Liquor on Delaware Avenue. “How can we compete if other people don’t have to follow the same rules?”

Independent owners feel the new Wegmans-related stores function effectively as a chain, giving them pricing and other advantages over single-store owners. Amherst St Wine & Liquor said the stores do not buy cooperatively, which is illegal.

Independent liquor store owners and consumers alike have noted the many crossovers between Wegmans stores and liquor stores on Wegmans property, such as identical signage and references to Wegmans-recommended wines. Amherst St Wine & Liquor even accepts Wegmans’ Shoppers Club card, which gives customers discounts on select products in the store.

That’s simply because Wegmans “provides some paid services, such as marketing and advertising, to Amherst Street Wine & Liquor,” Mehaffy said.

But Heubach doesn’t buy it.

“I don’t know anyone who truly believes that’s not a Wegmans store,” Heubach said.

If a liquor store is destined for the Cheektowaga out-parcel, the owners won’t be subject to a public hearing through the town. The space already has a mercantile designation, so rezoning won’t be necessary. Wegmans is scheduled to appear before the Cheektowaga planning board June 11.

“We’re just an advisory body,” said Daniel Ulatowski, Cheektowaga town planner. “We’ll look at its architectural character and the site plan.”

The project, which deals solely with the physical space of the proposed building, is expected to land before the Cheektowaga Town Board for approval in July.