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Food City CEO expects close vote in Hawkins wine referendums

July 10th, 2014 8:00 am by Jeff Bobo

Food City CEO expects close vote in Hawkins wine referendums

ROGERSVILLE — It was a close vote in 2012 getting liquor sales approved by referendum in Church Hill and Rogersville, and Food City president and CEO Steve Smith said Wednesday he doesn't expect wine to be much easier.

Smith is active in the "Red Wine and Food" (RW&F) coalition which lobbied the Tennessee General Assembly to approve legislation this year allowing wine sales in retail food stores. That new law goes into effect July 1, 2016.

Smith said he's expecting RW&F to campaign this year for wine referendums from Shelby County to Sullivan County, and most counties in-between.

Food City has 52 stores in Tennessee which will be affected by those referendums, including stores in Church Hill and Rogersville in Hawkins County.

"We've assisted (RF&W) in utilizing some of our stores to get petitions signed, and they'll be making decisions on how they campaign statewide," Smith said.

He added, "Before the November election I'm sure we'll have to make some decisions on where we do some campaigning because you can't assume you're going to win something just because it's on a referendum."

Tuesday evening the Hawkins County Election Commission verified enough signatures to get a referendum for wine sales in grocery stores on the ballot of the Nov. 4 Rogersville municipal election.

Rogersville needed 103 signatures. The Rogersville Food City store accumulated 488 signatures. Of those 488 names, 112 were valid registered voters in the city of Rogersville.

Rogersville joins Church Hill as Hawkins County's two municipalities that will have the wine question on the Nov. 4 ballot. Last week Church Hill met its minimum of 163 minimum valid signatures with 10 extra to spare.

Hawkins County may be a harder sell on the wine referendum than other areas of the state.

In order to be eligible for a wine referendum a county or municipality must have already approved a liquor referendum.

In 2012 Rogersville voters approved liquor by the drink by a narrow seven-vote margin, 708 to 701. Rogersville also approved a referendum allowing liquor stores by a vote of 707 to 663.

In 2012 Church Hill approved its liquor by the drink referendum by a vote of 1,348-1,113.

Smith said he's anticipating closes wine referendums as well in both communities.

"I think you'd be naive to think, as close as the (liquor) referendums were, that this wouldn't be close too," Smith said. "...Some people are against alcohol, and I don't know that you're going to sway those people to vote for it. A lot of people are ambivalent, and a lot of people are for it. If the people get out and vote the way they feel, I think we've got a good chance of winning in every municipality that we get it on the ballot."

Smith added, "Will we lose some? I'm sure we probably will. If we do, we'll bring it back the next go-around."

Wine is more important to the customers than it is Food City's bottom line, Smith said. Food City sells wine at its Weber City store where it accounts for less 1 percent of overall grocery sales.

Smith noted that surveys compiled by Vanderbilt University and Tennessee Tech said that between 65 and 70 percent of Tennesseans want to be able to buy wine in a grocery stores.

"We're in the business of carrying what our customers want, and certainly we get a lot customers in the Weber City store who come across the state line from Tennessee," Smith said. "...I think we've got the same opportunity in Tennessee to capture a larger percentage of customers and keep them in Tennessee if we make it more convenient for them. Most people don't care which state they shop in. They're going to go where they can get what they want."

Smith added, "Us being able to sell wine in Church Hill store would just be a convenience to the shoppers there who want to buy it — who may be used to going to Weber City or some other store to buy wine. The folks in Church Hill miss out on that revenue."

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