ANDERSON — As the Indiana General Assembly moved through its recent session, Jay Ricker, co-founder of a chain of convenience stores, was being viewed by some as a Hoosier folk hero challenging Indiana’s antiquated liquor laws.
Under those laws, convenience stores can sell warm beer but not cold. Cold beer can be purchased only in package liquor stores.
So he remodeled stores in Sheridan and Columbus so they would qualify for restaurant licenses, which he obtained by March through the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission. In fact, once his attorney found the legal loophole (a term Ricker does not care for; he says it was simply "the law"), it took only about 60 days to apply, go through public hearings and receive the licenses.
That move irritated Republican leaders in the General Assembly who said he was navigating outside the spirit of the laws. In response, the Legislature passed — Gov. Eric Holcomb signed — a law that requires 60 percent of alcohol sales at Ricker’s to be consumed on premises. The law pertains to any restaurant license issued after Oct. 31, 2016, and before May 14, 2017 which includes the dates that Ricker's got the two licenses.
That threshold effectively means Ricker won't be able to renew his licenses next year.
"I don't think there's any way we can make it, nor do I think most of the restaurants in a lot of these places can make it," he said. "I think there will be a lot of restaurants that will lose their license over this unintended change in the law. ... It has to be onsite premises. That means you're basically a bar, and we're not a bar. We're there to have a product that our consumers want. It's a legal one."
Ricker, however, was also seen as an entrepreneur taking advantage of state law.
During one meeting of an Indiana House committee, Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, said that the Ricker’s debate “highlighted the absurdity” of Indiana’s alcohol laws. He described Ricker as the “poster child, in my eyes, of the American dream.”
However, in April, Lucas voted with the majority to pass House Bill 1496, which carried the 60 percent restriction. The final version of the bill was approved by the House 84-14 and by the Senate 43-6.
Founded in Middletown in 1979 by Ricker and his wife Nancy, Ricker Oil Co. has grown to 56 central Indiana stores and employs more than 850 people.
In his Anderson offices this past week, Ricker discussed the past session.
On learning in March that his two restaurant licenses were controversial with Republican leaders:
"It was a day and a half after we opened the store down in Columbus. I'm told .... (a competitor) complained to the leadership that we were breaking the rules. It was a good ways into the session and then it was just like all hell broke loose. I actually stopped running the business for a while because I was just down there every day and I felt like we needed to get our message across."
On a statement by the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers (package liquor store lobbyist) that he was "thumbing his nose" at the General Assembly:
"If I thumbed the nose, it was obviously legal because the ATC has to approve it. ... And then you have to through a locality and go through hearings. Both in Sheridan and Columbus we had local hearings. We had a unanimous vote. We had nobody dissenting."
On when he began learning to navigate through the Legislature:
"I don't think it was until we got in the store business which was '89 or '90. There are so many things that happen to a business in the state so you have to be involved in making sure that you have a relationship with your elected representatives and that also means contributing to the campaign of those people that you support. ... Does that mean you get your way all the time? No. I think people sometimes misunderstand that. All it means is that you get access and you get to present your case and they may or may not agree with you. And I understand that."
"I became involved in our state trade association (Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association) and then I got on its board and I became chairman of the state association. As part of being active in your state trade association, you're automatically going to have to be involved in politics."
On how his employees sell cold beer in Columbus and Sheridan:
"At this point it is legal for us to use our permits and we are selling cold beer by the can, by the bottle, where we go out and pour it to individual patrons who are eating there. And we can sell carryout but we have to be very specific on how we do that. We can't just set it on the counter and let them take it. We have to put it in a bag and carry it around the counter and hand it to them. ... It's not the rest of the country where you can go to a cooler, open the door and get whatever you want."
On why Ricker's should be allowed to sell cold beer:
"It’s a business decision. We’d like to sell cold beer because when people buy cold beer they also buy other things. ... That’s what my customers want. What I don’t want to see is a drone delivering a cold six-pack of Bud one of these days out of the Amazon center."
On whether he'll file a lawsuit to fight the new law:
"I really don't want to do that. I think we need to see if we can get the law changed."
On the future of businesses like his:
"Bricks-and-mortar businesses in this country are all under attack and I think we all understand why. I mean hhgregg, what a great company it was, they're gone. We can go down the list. There'll be more. I think Sears will be gone one of these days. Payless shoes just went. You have to evolve or you're not going to be around. As part of that we (Ricker's stores) have to have food. Tobacco is under attack. People have better mileage vehicles so they're using less liquid fuels. So you gotta evolve. And our customers said, 'Hey, I want to have a cold beer when I eat.' "
On increasing the state tax on cigarettes (his stores sell tobacco) with revenue aiding smoking cessation efforts:
"I know there's going to be an attempt to raise taxes again on cigarettes. I think they didn't do it this year because they were raising so many other taxes. I'm OK if it's reasonable and again it really needs to keep us in line with the people in the states around us. I'm vehemently against turning it into a (requirement that you have to be a) 21 year-old to buy cigarettes. I think that's crazy. You can die for your country but you can't buy a pack of smokes. That's just crazy."