Manitoba's experiment with placing mini-liquor marts in grocery stores is proceeding at a glacial pace -- with only two outlets established since the initiative was announced nearly three years ago.
The Selinger government signalled its interest in making booze purchases more convenient for Manitobans as part of a comprehensive new hospitality strategy unveiled in May 2011.
One of the key promises was a pilot project to introduce 10 new limited-selection liquor boutiques with a focus on Manitoba and Canadian products. Five of the new outlets would be located in urban grocery stores.
However, the stores have been slow to materialize, and the two visited by the Free Press this week contained mainly foreign wines and spirits with a smattering of Canadian whiskey and wine and Manitoba beer.
The Safeway at 2155 Pembina Hwy. in Fort Richmond was the first grocery store in the city to secure a government liquor mart, staffed by unionized Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries employees. It's located behind the grocery store cashiers and features a variety of wines, coolers, beer and hard liquor. It opened in December 2012.
A Liquor Mart Express, as the corporation calls the small stores, also opened in a Brandon Sobeys last March.
As well, there are Express stores at Richardson International Airport and in the Park West Shopping Centre on Roblin Boulevard. The latter appears to be a smaller version of a traditional stand-alone store.
MLA Ron Schuler, Conservative critic for liquor and lotteries, said he's surprised at the pilot project's slow progress and wonders if the government is "dooming it to fail."
"They've had a lot of time to do this right. It should have been rolled out," Schuler said this week.
But the government maintains it's making progress.
Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries has had to contend with issues that were beyond its control, including grocery-chain mergers, said Ron Lemieux, minister responsible for the corporation.
Lemieux said the Crown corporation had to "take a step back" while Sobeys negotiated its merger with Safeway.
He said the government didn't know whether the merger would prompt the closure of some stores. Lemieux revealed Liquor and Lotteries is in the final stages of negotiating with a third grocery store for a Liquor Mart Express -- this one with Superstore at Gateway Road and McLeod Avenue. It's anticipated to open this summer.
The minister said he's also open to seeing several more grocery store liquor outlets emerge if a business case can be made for them. The corporation will do its due diligence on that once all five projected Express marts in the pilot phase are up and running, he said.
"So far, I understand that they're doing very, very well," he said of the four currently in operation. He said his understanding is the airport location is doing "extremely well."
Safeway shoppers interviewed at the south Pembina location appreciated the convenience of being able to pick up a bottle of wine along with their groceries.
"I think it's good. One-stop shopping!" said Edith Brown, who lives in Richmond West.
"They should have more," said Joseph Savard. "This way, you don't have to run to a liquor store and wait in a lineup. In Quebec, they sell wine in the grocery stores. They should do the same here."
The small liquor mart at the Safeway featured a few Canadian wines, but there was a greater selection of American, Australian, Italian and Chilean offerings. Manitoba-made beer, such as Fort Garry, was prominently displayed, but so were several foreign brands.
Susan Olynik, vice-president of corporate communications and social responsibility for Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries, said the corporation was still in the process of determining the product selection at the time the Express stores were announced.
"We wanted to ensure Manitoba and Canadian products are available at the locations, but first and foremost, the Express stores were introduced to provide a new level of customer convenience and further modernize Manitoba's retail model."