Why 7-Eleven's plan to serve alcohol in Ontario sparks concern — and curiosity — in business community

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7-Eleven's new plan to sell wine and beer at several Ontario stores is raising both eyebrows and concern in the business community.

Already struggling with COVID-19 restrictions, Ontario bars and restaurants may soon be facing new competition from a powerful, multinational chain of convenience stores.

That's right: it will be restaurants and bars competing with 7-Eleven if its applications are successful. 

The company is applying for licences to sell beer and wine for in-store consumption only. Corner store alcohol sales remain prohibited in Ontario.

"To complement our fresh food and hot food programs, we are preparing for in-store service of a small selection of Ontario-made beer and wine products, offered during limited hours, and in designated consumption areas of our stores," a statement from 7-Eleven Canada reads.

It's seeking liquor licences for 61 Ontario locations, including 14 stores in Toronto. The company says all staff handling wine and beer would be trained under Smart Serve — a provincially approved program that teaches employees how to serve alcohol responsibly.

'Play by the rules,' restaurant association urges

With many small businesses trying to recover from pandemic restrictions, Tony Elenis, president & CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association, says this is "not the best climate to start bringing in competition."

But aside from the timing, Elenis says there's nothing wrong with the plan if it's fairly regulated by the government.

"As long as they play by the rules. They have to follow the health, labour and building rules associated with opening a restaurant," he said.

"It can't just be a side gig they're using as an opportunity to sell booze," he added. 

7-Eleven's fresh and hot food offerings include pizza, fried chicken and hot dogs.

Won't lead to corner store sales: government source

While the details on what the "designated consumption areas" will look like are still unclear, physical changes will have to be made to the stores for the applications to succeed.

"For these locations, a space must be created for the sale, service and consumption of alcohol with food inside the store," said Raymond Kahnert, a senior adviser with the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario. The AGCO is reviewing 7-Eleven's applications.

Government officials are stressing that the applications are for restaurant-style alcohol sales, not retail.