SNOW HILL – In spite of a show of community support, a Snow Hill gas station was denied a liquor license following testimony questioned by the Worcester County Board of License Commissioners.
Super Soda, the gas station located on Route 12 at the edge of Snow Hill, has been unable to sell alcohol since its license was revoked following a sale to a minor in 2012. Alcohol will remain unavailable in the convenience store after a hearing Wednesday with the Worcester County Board of License Commissioners (BLC). Board members said testimony from the applicant, Ronak Patel, was not clear.
“The testimony is too confusing for me to make a decision,” said William Esham, BLC chairman. “I’m not sure what he’s told us in plain English. I don’t think he’s intentionally sitting there and deceiving us, but I’m not sure where we are.”
Nearly 30 community members, including Snow Hill business owners, attended the Feb. 17 meeting to show support for Patel. The 27-year-old Salisbury University graduate took over the store from his father, who opened it roughly 10 years ago. According to Mark Cropper, Patel’s attorney, he’d been running the store successfully since 2013 and wanted to regain the ability to sell alcohol to meet the needs of customers. Patel submitted a petition signed by more than 200 customers who wanted to see the store able to sell alcohol. One of them was Gary Weber, owner of Snow Hill restaurant the Blue Dog Café. He told the BLC he didn’t see a problem with the store selling alcohol.
“It’s well run,” he said. “It’s nicely maintained.”
Attorney Russell Dashiell, representing the owner of Snow Hill’s Food Rite and Town Market Basket, questioned how long Weber had known Patel and asked whether beer sales at Super Soda would hurt the Blue Dog Café. Weber said they would not. He also indicated he understood Patel’s interest in selling alcohol.
“Being in Snow Hill you need every possible avenue to make a living,” Weber said. “I think it’s critical to the survival of that business and the people that work there. Also to the convenience that property brings to 3,000 people in the general area.”
When Dashiell asked whether Weber thought Super Soda selling alcohol would hurt business at Food Rite and the Town Market Basket, Weber replied that the grocery store was practically a shopping center in itself.
“I doubt it’ll have any effect,” he said. “That property is the only grocery store, the only liquor store in central Worcester County. I don’t think somebody else selling wine and beer is going to effect their business.”
Khurram Riaz, operator of Kaddy Mart in Snow Hill, also told the BLC he was in support of Super Soda selling alcohol. He suggested that the store would primarily attract customers from Route 12, as it sat just outside of town. Cropper pointed out that on the stretch of rural road, the next place to buy alcohol was 14 miles away in Wicomico County. He also said that while there were other stores with liquor licenses in downtown Snow Hill, they didn’t stay open as late as Patel planned to.
Snow Hill resident John King was among the crowd in attendance to support Patel’s license bid. He said he stopped at Super Soda three or four times a week and complimented the store owner.
“I believe he’s very competent,” he said. “He knows what he’s doing.”
Following Cropper’s presentation on his client’s behalf, Dashiell questioned the veracity of Patel’s petition. He pointed out that several of the customers who signed the petition indicated they’d known Patel for seven or more years in spite of the fact that he only moved to the United States in 2010.
Thomas Coates, the BLC’s attorney, said that Patel testified that he’d collected the signatures and hadn’t claimed to have verified the statements made.
“The board’s not going to put weight on the statements,” Coates said.
Dashiell went on to question the need for an additional liquor license in Snow Hill, as there were already seven in a town with roughly 1,500 people of drinking age. He also asked whether Patel was involved in the Super Soda operation when it made sales to minors in 2012. Patel said he’d been in the store, as his father ran it, but did not start working there until 2013.
Board members pointed out that BLC investigator Skip Cook had written in his report that Patel claimed to have spent six or seven months working for his father in 2012.
“I’ve seen how to sell alcohol and beer,” Patel said. “That’s what I mean to say. My dad used to own that place.”
When Cook referred to his notes, he clarified that what Patel had actually told him that he’d worked six or seven months in the store “till 2012.” Cropper said his client’s testimony was accurate and pointed out the investigator’s notes did not match his report.
Dashiell, however, maintained that the investigator’s report was a record of the BLC. He also pointed to the store’s previous liquor law violations and stressed that Patel had simply taken over the store for his father.
“Essentially this is the same operation with a different face,” he said.
BLC member Charles Nichols asked Patel if he’d received any loans from his father. Patel replied that he’d received a loan from Taylor Bank and had been given the store by his father as a college graduation gift.
After adjourning to closed session to consult with its attorney, the BLC reconvened and members voiced concern with Patel’s testimony.
“I’ve never been more confused,” Esham said.
Cropper suggested tabling the license request until Patel addressed the confusion.
“We’re talking about one sentence on a report,” he said. “This whole thing’s come down to one sentence in that report after a thorough presentation.”
Nevertheless all three board members voted to support Nichols’ motion to deny Patel’s license request. Esham told Patel he was welcome to reapply for a license again in the future.