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Little Grocery on University turns tobacco shop, seeks variance

Posted on 08 October 2018 by Calvin

The Little Grocery, 1724 University Ave., has applied for a variance of 40’ to become a “tobacco product shop” this fall. Tobacco products shops in St. Paul need to be at least one-half mile, or 2,640 feet apart. The Little Grocery is 40’ short of the half-mile limit and have asked for a variance. (Photo courtesy of Google Maps)

St. Paul’s upcoming restrictions on menthol products sales have business owners scrambling to retain the ability to sell such products. The Little Grocery, 1724 University Ave., wishes to get out of the grocery business and become a tobacco product shop this fall, with a separation distance variance approved Sept. 10 by the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). But that decision has been appealed to the St. Paul City council, which will hear the request in late October or November.

The BZA vote was 4-2 for approval with Robert Clarksen, Luis Rangel Morales, Danielle Swift and Diane Trout-Oertel voting for the variance and Gloria Bogen and Thomas Sailor against.

Little Grocery owner Mussie Embaye is converting the grocery store into a tobacco shop because many of his sales are of menthol-flavored tobacco products. About 75 percent of the store’s sales as a convenience store are of tobacco products.

In 2017 the St. Paul City Council voted to restrict the sale of menthol-flavored tobacco products to tobacco shops. At the time of the City Council vote, anti-tobacco advocates contended that menthol-flavored products are more heavily used by young people and people of color, putting them at risk for negative health impacts.

The ban was delayed to give stores time to sell out existing inventory. Convenience stores, grocery stores, and other retailers must stop selling the menthol-flavored products by Nov. 1. A few small grocery and convenience stores have already renovated their buildings to separate tobacco sales from other products. For Embaye, who rents his space, it is just easier to drop milk, bread, and eggs, and just sell tobacco.

Tobacco products shops in St. Paul need to be at least one-half mile or 2,640 feet apart. 1724 University Ave. is 2,600 feet from Vape Pros, 681 N. Snelling Ave. Vape Pros sells e-cigarettes and accessories. E-cigarettes in St. Paul are regulated in the same way that tobacco products are, so shops selling those items fall under the tobacco products restrictions.

A variance of 40 feet is needed to allow for the new shop to open. It’s the second tobacco products shop distance requirement waiver the BZA has passed in three months. In July the board approved a 240-foot variance between two Rice St. shops. The board will hear a third request soon.

Embaye said he has little choice but to change his store. “Everything I am asking for is in reaction to what the city has done,” said Embaye. His convenience store, which he recently closed, wouldn’t be profitable if he cannot sell menthol-flavored tobacco products. Embaye believes it makes more sense for him to sell tobacco.

“It’s the only viable option I have at this point,’ he said. By becoming a tobacco product shop, the University Ave. storefront can have more than 90 percent of its sales from tobacco products, including the sale of cigarettes, cigars, pipes, loose tobacco, plants, herbs, and smoking devices.

BZA members debated the impact the latest variance would have. Bogen said Embaye could still sell other tobacco products in his store, just not those that are menthol-flavored. She said the variance doesn’t meet all of the required findings for approval, and that not meeting the distance requirement isn’t a hardship.

Other BZA members said the request is reasonable. “The applicant is at a disadvantage because menthol cigarettes are what sells,” said Trout-Oertel.

The Association for Nonsmokers Minnesota and Aurora-St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation youth program representatives objected to the variance, citing the detrimental impacts of tobacco on public health. Jeanne Weigum of ANSR-Minnesota said the area is already “heavily blanketed’ with tobacco licenses. She said that issuing distance variances “flies in the face of the City Council’s intent” in limiting access to menthol-flavored tobacco products.

BZA staff recommended approval of the variance, citing the business’s location in a commercial district, the fact that Little Grocery has long sold tobacco products and the distance requirement hardship. BZA staff member Jerome Benner II said the 40-foot variance request is reasonable and should be granted. Union Park District Council made no recommendation.

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