Councilwoman Cindy Bass walked into Kenny’s Seafood & Steaks, a small army of people behind her, wearing matching “Fit 30” T-shirts.
Without explanation, the group began setting up folding tables and chairs in the cramped stop-and-go at 4931 Wayne Ave., where neither steak nor seafood is on the menu.
Stop-and-go stores — small convenience stores, delis, or gas stations with liquor licenses — often operate outside of the law, which requires that they sell food and have enough tables and chairs for at least 30 people. Bass’ “Fit 30” campaign, which she launched Friday, aims to expose establishments that are breaking that law, in an attempt to get liquor licenses revoked or force businesses to change their ways.
Owner Jeff Liu watched, confused, from behind his counter, shielded by a plastic partition, as the group entered his store. Behind him, floor-to-ceiling coolers held hundreds of $2.50 beers, a colorful array of malt liquors, and wine coolers. Display shelves were loaded with dice, lighters, cigarette cartons, candy, and pain medication.
“Do you have a menu? Do you sell food?” Bass asked Liu.
“We sold food before, not right now,” Liu said as the crowd of about 30, packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the store, erupted in jeers.
“You’re supposed to sell food,” Bass said.
Liu’s store has a full kitchen, as do many stores similar to his, but he said that when he used to prepare food, no one would buy it, so the kitchen sits unused in the back.
As the crowd packed up the furniture to leave, Liu, looking a bit frazzled, said he believed the attention was unfair. “There are 200 delis, stores like this, why pick on me?” he said.
The proliferation of stop-and-go stores is the problem, Bass said. There are three in one block of Wayne Avenue in Germantown. Bass’ chief of staff mapped 23 in her district, which includes Nicetown, Tioga, Logan, and other parts of North Philadelphia. Hundreds are scattered across the city.
Complaints about the stores run the gamut — they attract crime, sell to minors, prey on vulnerable populations, and, in the case of those selling candy and snacks, expose kids to alcohol at a young age.
“When at 9 o’clock there are at least five people outside of a stop-and-go drinking, that’s a problem,” said Daphne Goggins, 54, a Republican ward leader in Northeast Philadelphia, who joined Bass on the tour.
“Our children walk to school and they’re seeing this on a daily basis, people out early in the morning drinking,” Goggins said. “They come home from school and those same people are there drinking. It’s a disease, and we need to address that, but this is teaching our children that it’s normal.”
The city code requires businesses selling malt liquor or beer to have tables and chairs sufficient to accommodate 30 people and to regularly prepare and sell food. The law also requires that consumption be allowed on premises, though many stop-and-go owners discourage loitering inside or intentionally forgo chairs so large crowds won’t gather.
Bass said she had reached out several times to the state Liquor Control Board. She wants to see the oversight board crack down on enforcing the laws on the books and take a more discerning approach to granting licenses.
The LCB did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Legislators in Harrisburg recently introduced a bill that would allow the board to designate “saturated nuisance market areas,” where violators could be slapped with harsher penalties, including license revocation.
But a separate bill that would allow for video game gambling terminals in bars and stores that sell liquor could prompt more stop-and-go shops, Bass said.
“We need to address this now before things get even worse,” she told constituents on the “sit-in” tour.
As the group flooded into Mom & Pop Deli a few blocks away, customer John Love left to finish his beer outside and avoid the commotion.
“You’re defeating your purpose, because now I’ve got to come outside,” said Love, 64, as he sipped from a Natural Light through a straw. “My thing is, don’t come after the people, it’s who’s issuing the licenses.”
Inside the store, Quang Phuong, who has owned the place for 11 years, said he did have space for 30 people and took the group back to a dark, wood-paneled room, adjacent to the store space. There were plastic lawn chairs and tables to seat at least 30 people.
“This reminds me of back in the day, when we had speakeasies and Al Capone,” one woman said.
Phuong said that while the room makes him compliant with the law, he doesn’t like opening it up to people. When he’s working at the counter, he can’t see what’s going on back there, and he’s walked in on drug deals or people passed out after drinking.
“It’s not safe,” he said. “It’s dangerous.”