Big box retailers sue state, renewing whiskey and Wheaties debate

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Walmart and Target are suing Florida in an effort to accomplish what they’ve been unable to get the state Legislature and governor to allow for at least the last five years: Sell alcohol by the bottle in their main stores.

Major retailers can only sell liquor if it’s separated by a wall from their main grocery shelves. 

In 2017, they almost succeeded at tearing those walls down. The so-called whiskey-and-Wheaties bill was narrowly approved by lawmakers, but Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the bill.

“I've had family members that have dealt with, had the challenge of alcoholism,” Scott said in a 2017 interview.

Walmart and Target are now arguing they should qualify for consumption-on-premises liquor licenses because many of their stores are licensed as restaurants.

To get a consumption-on-premises license, the law says liquor can only be sold alongside “items customarily sold in a restaurant," but the statute doesn’t define those items. 

Walmart and Target argue the list defined by agency rule-makers more than two decades ago is too narrow.

ABC Liquors lobbyist Scott Dick has fought the big box stores each year in the Legislature.  He believes the administrative challenge suggests the retailers are running out of options.

“Costco sells caskets. So caskets would be customarily sold in a restaurant. I mean it's a far stretch,” Dick said.

Walmart and Target said the state arbitrarily enforces the existing rule, allowing companies like hotels to obtain consumption-on-premises licenses despite selling items outside of the state’s own definition of items customarily sold in restaurants.

Will Hall, who represents the Florida Independent Spirits Association, said repealing the rule would create confusion for traditional liquor stores.

“They basically say anything in the world can fit the definition. I think that renders the statute meaningless," Hall said. "You can't do that."

If the rule is stricken, not only would stores such as Walmart and Target be allowed to sell liquor on their shelves, they would also be allowed to sell beverages for customers to drink while they shop.