New Brunswick

Grand Manan's liquor contract taken from convenience store, given to grocer down the road

The contract to operate Grand Manan's only liquor outlet has been taken away from Castalia Convenience and given to Ahmet's Independent Grocer. 

'It just feels greedy,' says island business operator

Castalia Convenience has had the contract to sell alcohol on Grand Manan for nearly 12 years. That contract expires in November. (Submitted by Courtney Guptill)

The contract to operate Grand Manan's only liquor outlet has been taken away from Castalia Convenience and given to Ahmet's Independent Grocer. 

The move has surprised and upset many residents and sparked a lot of talk on the island. 

The owners of Castalia Convenience, Faye and Roger Guptill, declined to comment, but their daughter said the family is "heartbroken." 

"It's really upsetting because my parents have worked really hard their entire lives to put into this business, to serve this community," said Courtney Guptill. 

"And they've done a really good job, and to see that taken from them by a bigger business — and it was quite unexpected — it's just really upsetting, really hurtful."

Ahmet's Independent Grocer has been award the contract to operate a liquor outlet on Grand Manan. (Google Earth)

The Guptills have operated the convenience store on Route 776 for 18 years, and for the last 12, they've had the island's only agency store for N.B. Liquor. With their contract set to expire at the end of November, they applied again. 

But on Wednesday, they found out they were unsuccessful. The contract had been awarded to the island's only grocery store. 

CBC News left a message for Ahmet Tahan with an employee of Ahmet's Independent Grocer, a chain store, on Friday afternoon, but there has been no response. 

Stores under the "Independent Grocer" name are part of Loblaw Companies Ltd.

Like other grocery stores, Ahmet's Independent Grocer could have sold beer and wine within its existing operations. That's what upsets Courtney Guptill the most. 

"They didn't need to take my parents' business," she said by phone on Friday. "They were able to sell those things without causing any harm or taking anything from them."

Guptill isn't sure her parents' store will survive. She said alcohol was a major draw for customers. 

"It really brings people into the store … and they're also buying their snacks and their ice and their cigarettes and other things when they're in," she said. 

"So when they lose the contract … they're going to be losing all of that business."

When her parents were awarded the contract a dozen years ago, they invested a lot of money expanding the store and installing coolers. 

"It was a really big undertaking they took on, and they certainly didn't expect that it was something that they're only going to be able to do for a short period of time."

Guptill isn't sure what can be done to reverse the decision, but she said her family is going to "put up a fight." 

The contract to sell alcohol on Grand Manan has been taken away from this convenience store and awarded to a grocery store down the road falling under the Loblaw umbrella. (Submitted by Courtney Guptill)

While the decision to award the contract to a bigger business just down the road is disheartening, the Guptills are buoyed by the outpouring of support from the community. 

A Facebook message posted by Guptill on Thursday had more than 100 messages of support within hours. 

"It's so heartbreaking," she said. "It's been a big part of my family. My parents have worked so hard to keep that business running and to make it what it is. To see that lost to a bigger business that's already thriving and kind of has a monopoly over a lot of the business on the island, it's just heartbreaking." 

'It just feels greedy'

Business owner Kiera Dall'Osto is one of many speaking out in support of the Guptills — and if she had any choice, she'd boycott the new agency store. But her business, Old Well House Cafe, is licensed and she has no other option on the island but to buy from the approved outlet. 

"It's forcing me to kind of participate in this," she said. 

She feels bad for the Guptills. She said they've "done everything right for 12 years," only to have the contract taken away from them through no fault of their own. 

Dall'Osto also worries about the decision to put alcohol in the island's only grocery store — thereby making it easily accessible and nearly impossible to avoid. 

She said Grand Manan has a "very well-known addictions problem," and she worries that putting alcohol into the grocery store will create a "trigger" for people who have had issues with alcoholism in the past. 

"How do you avoid going to the only grocery store on the island? You can't," she said. 

"That seems really irresponsible on an island with our already struggling population with mental health and addiction issues."

Not the first time 

This isn't the first time an existing operator of an N.B. Liquor agency store has had their contract moved to a competitor. 

Last year, N.B. Liquor moved its outlet in Hartland from a spot near the famed covered bridge to an Irving station at the edge of town. The decision generated controversy in the community and raised questions about whether politics, corporate influence or both played roles in the move.

Last-minute appeals to the province failed and the change went ahead. 

Marie-Andrée Bolduc, director of communications for N.B. Liquor, said contracts are put out to tender when existing agreements are nearing the end of their term. 

She said the process follows "an unbiased and prescribed Request for Proposal process," and each applicant is awarded points for criteria such as:

  • traffic visibility
  • hours of operations
  • storage space
  • cold room space
  • alcohol selection
  • available parking
  • previous business and retail experience   

Bolduc was asked to clarify whether existing contract holders are given any special consideration. In an email, she wrote, "In order to be fair to all bidders, once the evaluation starts all bidders are assessed against the same criteria."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mia Urquhart is a journalist with CBC New Brunswick, based in Saint John. She can be reached at mia.urquhart@cbc.ca.

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