Sept. 9, 2019 By Allie Griffin
A number of mom-and-pop wine and liquor shops have banded together to block the opening of a large liquor outlet in College Point.
A new discount wine and liquor store with close ties to the Total Wine & More chain — the largest retailer of wine, beer and liquor in the country and dubbed the “Walmart” of the spirits industry — has applied to open at the vacant Toys R Us building at 30-02 Whitestone Expressway under the name MCT Fine Wines & Spirits.
Area wine and liquor store owners, many operated by first- and second-generation immigrants, are worried that they will lose their livelihood should the large store move in. More than a hundred independent liquor store owners throughout Queens have come together to fight its opening.
“This industry is populated by immigrants such as myself, whether it be Russian or Chinese or Korean or Ukrainian,” said Alex Melamudou, an immigrant from Ukraine and owner of Phoenix Spirits Liquor and Wine Warehouse in Corona. He said that the independent stores provide owners with a “foot onto the economic ladder.”
“We are not afraid of competition,” Melamudou said. “We embrace competition, but we must have a standing chance to actually compete.”
The fear of the store opening is widespread.
“It just scares me,” said John Chen, owner of nearby Provence Wine & Spirits in Flushing.
Chen, a first-generation immigrant from China has owned his Flushing shop for three years after selling his liquor store in East Meadow when Total Wine & More opened in Westbury, a town over. “I feel like it’s following me,” he said.
The independent store owners are urging elected officials and the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA) to reject the store’s application for a liquor license, stating that the name is just a front for Total Wine to get around state liquor laws and that the chain has a history of predatory pricing.
New York state licensing laws prohibit liquor and wine store owners from operating more than one store in New York.
MCT Fine Wines & Spirits is said to be wholly owned and operated by Michelle Trone, the daughter of one of Total Wine’s co-owners, but local package store owners don’t buy it.
Several local politicians now believe the two names to be one in the same as well, after learning of Trone’s familial ties and thus flip-flopped from support to opposition of its application.
Melamudou said the local officials “signed on thinking they were supporting a young female entrepreneur, but in reality, this was a trojan horse with a savage intent on the backend from a huge corporation.”
In May Council Member Paul Vallone penned a letter to the SLA backing MCT Fine Wine & Spirits’ application, with nine other city council members signing on. The following month, more than a dozen state assembly members sent a similar letter to the SLA urging it to approve its liquor license application.
Since then, many of the signatories have withdrawn their support in subsequent letters after hearing from local store owners and their advocates. However, Council Member Vallone, who represents the district where Total Wine has eyed for a location, hasn’t wavered in his support.
“Council Member Vallone was one of 10 Queens Council Members to sign a May 29 letter of support,” a spokesperson for his office said. “The Council Member’s stance on the issue remains the same.”
It isn’t the first time Total Wine & More, which operates nearly 200 superstores across 23 states, has tried to add what many are calling a second location in the empire state.
The chain’s co-owners, Maryland Congressman David Trone and his brother Robert Trone, have tried and failed to add a second store in Stony Brook and in Westchester County and are now appealing the SLA’s rejection of its application for the upstate store in court.
“I have never seen Queens liquor store retailers gather that quickly,” said Amy Tang, a family friend and part-time employee of Chen. “We basically gathered overnight because no one in the liquor store industry don’t know that name, don’t know that family, don’t know what they are capable of.”
The mom-and-pop shop owners said Total Wine has a history of charging at-cost products to force out smaller operators.
“[Total Wine] is a 200-store $3 billion liquor store chain that basically comes into a market and funds loss-leading practices, selling low cost and at cost of products in an attempt to basically gain market share and destroy the competition,” said Michael Correra, the executive director of the non-profit Metropolitan Package Store Association, which advocates for local NYC liquor and wine retailers.
The owner of another small liquor store, H & K Jamaica Liquor in Jamaica, questioned Total Wines’ business ethics.
“They’re selling below our invoice cost, so at some point….we are going to go out of business… and when we do go out of business, they will rise up the prices,” Kevin Jaing, of H & K Liquor, said.
“Every week I have two customers telling me about Total Wine and that is in Westbury, I’m located in Jamaica. Imagine if they open in College Point,” he said.
Total Wine & More did not respond to a request for comment.