Paul Wilson: LCBO strike or not, there's hooch in the hinterlands

The LCBO is facing the first strike in its 86-year-history. That could shut the government outlets, but Greater Hamilton is blessed with three "agency stores" on the edge of town.
Don Pede says beer, wine and liquor sales are important at Rockton Berry Farm, but the store is known best for its gourmet pies. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Since it was formed in 1927, with the end of Prohibition, the LCBO has never had a strike. That streak looks ready to end Friday, as 7,000 workers say they need a better deal.

With the long weekend approaching, the LCBO has been advising consumers to stock up before it has to lock the doors.

But if you’re really thirsty – and you don’t mind a line-up – relief is not so far away.

There are 219 rural "agency stores" in Ontario – corner grocers, general stores, outfitters that do carry beer, wine and liquor. And within the borders of Greater Hamilton, there are three of them.

They will be open, strike or no strike. They will be open on Victoria Day Monday too. Unlike the LCBO stores, the agency stores are always open on holidays. That’s when the lines often stretch out the door.

At the LCBO's agency store in Carlisle, there's no grocery. But they will take your dry cleaning and rent you a movie. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

But if there’s a strike, those agency-store queues could be a daily phenomenon.

The LCBO needed persuading

To the west, it’s Rockton Berry Farm, Don Pede proprietor. This has been agency store for six years. Before that, Pede did a lot of legwork to persuade the LCBO there should be an outlet in the Rockton area. He provided traffic flows and other stats.

Even then, when the LCBO did decide to put an agency store in the area, they put out a request for proposals. "So after doing that work, we could have lost it anyway," Pede says.

He figures alcohol sales account for some 40 per cent of his business. But the store is best known for its gourmet pies. They’re two-pounders – apple, raspberry, strawberry-rhubarb and more – and they go for $15.

To the north, it’s Carlisle Cleaners, in the heart of the village. You can’t buy food here, but can drop off the cleaning, you can rent a movie, you can buy booze.

This is David Yoo’s place. On this afternoon, his floor is full of wine and liquor cases, with a couple of staffers on shelving duty. Even though the store’s going to be open, "people are stocking up already," he says.

John Lee's store doesn't feel like it's in the country anymore. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Lots of coolers

To the south, it’s Binbrook Food Market. Proprietors, John Lee and family. He’s in the midst of a setting that looks less rural and more suburban every day. The big-box Shoppers and FreshCo are already here, and more retail is on the way.

Lee is prepared for whatever may come over these next few days. "I’ve stocked up pretty much all I can. If it’s a hot weekend, I’ll need lots of coolers."

Agency stores get a 10 per cent discount on all product from the LCBO, then sell it at the same price as the government store. That’s how they’re compensated.

Their staff have to take the "Challenge and Refusal" training program to make sure no one underage or intoxicated buys a bottle. And the stores have to take back empties.

LCBO workers don’t like these stores and say they’re a back-door way to privatization. On the OPSEU website, the workers "encourage consumers to avoid Agency Stores if at all possible."

They don’t want to lose their jobs, which pay well compared to most in the retail sector. Who can blame them for that?

You can stop by the neighbourhood depanneur for a bottle of wine in Quebec, or visit the government-run SAQ for a wider selection. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Quebec does it both ways

Conservative leader Tim Hudak promised six months ago that, if elected, he’ll put beer and wine in the grocery stores. But such a move wouldn’t have to mean the end of the LCBO stores and the good jobs they provide.

In Quebec, there are hundreds of government-owned SAQ stores – as well as legions of grocers and depanneurs (corner stores) that sell beer and wine. It’s wonderfully convenient and civilization there has not yet collapsed.

But change comes slowly in Ontario. For the first 30 years of the LCBO’s life, each consumer had to carry a passport-sized book into the store. It provided personal information and purchase history – how much you were buying and when.

They changed to a system where you had to sign for every bottle. It was still that way in the Seventies and I distinctly remember filling out those forms at the LCBO near Yonge and College in Toronto.

Did that curb my university-days consumption? Not by an ounce.

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.