Internal ABC emails show counter-service store conversions may be less certain than indicated

By: - March 24, 2023 12:04 am

ABC Store 251 in Richmond’s Northside, one of the authority’s few remaining counter-service stores, during December 2022. (Meghan McIntyre / Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority told the Mercury last December it has plans to modernize all of its stores, including converting its three remaining counter-service locations – stores where all products are kept behind a counter shielded with a protective barrier – to standard self-service ones. But internal emails from the authority recently obtained by the Mercury through a Freedom of Information Act request paint a more uncertain future for the counter stores, with one high-level official saying there is no conversion plan.

The day the story ran on Dec. 19, Susan Johnson, ABC director of real estate and facilities management, emailed Chief Retail Operations Officer Mark Dunham and Chief Executive Officer Travis Hill, saying she was “very confused” with the story on the modernization plan.

“I don’t have a plan for converting counter stores to self-service,” she wrote. 

Modernizing ABC says counter-service stores are on their way out

Two weeks later, on Jan. 2, ABC public relations specialist Valerie Hubbard emailed Johnson to ask: “If we get calls from media on plans to change our counter service stores to self-service, should we say that we are in the planning process to make that happen?”

Johnson replies: “No, I wouldn’t say that, as I don’t know that we will be changing those stores to self-service.”

Dunham and Hill, Johnson’s superiors, denied the Mercury’s requests to speak with her for this story.

Asked about the discrepancy between its earlier communications with the Mercury and internal emails, ABC Chief Digital and Branding Officer Vida Williams reiterated that the counter stores will be converted regardless of what Johnson said. The authority’s new executive leadership team, she emphasized, is still “working on alignment” with the full organization and “any type of internal plan comes with discourse.”

“Guess who’s director of communications and chief of communications? Me. She’s the chief of retail, so her message does not trump my message,” Williams said. “Susan saying yes or no is immaterial to the fact that it is happening.”

In the same interview, Dunham said: “Was her answer incorrect? It was, ‘We haven’t built the plan yet.’ The plan is in development, it’s not fully stated.”

Williams said the decision to transition the counter stores and modernize the authority’s locations happened “way before” the Mercury asked about it in December. However, despite requests, the authority has not provided the Mercury with any documentation – including a budget, timeline or planning documents – related to its modernization plan. 

“I don’t have anything in my hands that says, ‘This is the modernization plan,’” Hill said this week. “I know that there are continuing conversations within the organization to say what it will consist of, what we are going to focus on, what are the aspects of each store that we’re going to focus on.”

Dunham said the modernization of 399 ABC stores across Virginia can’t be done “overnight and has been in the planning stages since [ABC] built the distribution center.” 

ABC’s most recent 315,000 square foot distribution center in Mechanicsville opened in February 2021, along with the authority’s new headquarters, which Williams said houses a “store of tomorrow”’ where new concepts can be tested for modernizing stores.

‘The simple truth’

On Dec. 2, Pat Kane, an ABC public relations specialist, emailed the Mercury’s initial inquiry about how the authority determines which locations are served by counter stores to Dunham, Johnson and Jennifer Burke, director of retail operations. Dawn Eischen, a former ABC public relations specialist, and Cortley West, the authority’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion, were copied on the email. Kane prefaced his forward with the comment: “I think the reporter is looking into the equity angle of who gets ‘nice’ stores in their neighborhood.”

The same day, Johnson replied: “The three that are still ‘conventional’ or ‘counter’ stores have not been converted to self service because of higher crime in those areas and the safety of our employees.”

Located in Petersburg and Richmond, the three counter stores — 118, 187 and 251 — were opened prior to 1995 and reside in primarily Black neighborhoods, according to U.S. Census data.

Later that day, Kane circulated to colleagues a draft response that included the lines: “Virginia ABC has a responsibility to our employees and our customers to provide a safe environment in and around every one of our stores. (open to suggestions to tweak this).” 

Following Kane’s reply, Burke wrote: “This is perfect to me, it is the simple truth.” Johnson wrote “Agreed” next to Burke’s response.

On Dec. 5, Williams sent these statements to Dunham and Elizabeth Chu, ABC chief transformation officer, adding, “Are we okay with the implication of this simple truth? Do we have crime statistics to provide context to unsafe?” 

Chu replied: “I’m uncomfortable with this statement. It implies that the counter stores are in place because of higher crime. … Can we instead respond by giving a history of these counter stores (installed prior to 1995) and we are looking at an overall strategy to convert them while we look at what the ‘store of the future’ is.”

Dunham replied: “I was in the process of typing a similar response, concern the response opens up to inquiry. I would not focus on the store of the future as much as we look at renovations/ modernizing stores.”

A liquor store in downtown Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In a Dec. 7 interview with Williams and Kane, Williams did not mention anything to the Mercury about the authority’s responsibility “to provide a safe environment” in relation to why some locations have counter stores.

When later asked about the “simple truth” explanation put forward in internal communications, Williams said the agency’s response to the Mercury that focused on modernization “had to do with how it loops through.” 

“It goes to [media relations specialist] Pat [Kane], Pat brings it to the people, ‘Hey we have this inquiry, you have subject matter expertise on this,’” Williams said. “Once that is done, it is brought to those who set strategic direction. When that came to strategic direction, we were like, ‘Absolutely not, that is not what we’re doing.’”

On Dec. 15, in a thread about agency communications with the Mercury, Burke emailed Kane, Williams, Eischen and ABC regional manager Ramon Santiago, saying, “Let’s stay as close to the vest as possible while assuring we promote our position as public servants and the benefits we provide to the commonwealth.” 

“Be careful not to walk into any conversations regarding why counter stores may exist in some areas and not others as we simply have not done renovations at this time and in some instances the communities have requested the counter store layouts as well. (for our internal knowledge),” she continued.

When asked why the initial response from ABC on Dec. 2 didn’t include mentions of converting the counter stores if the modernization plans were made “way before” that date, Hill said the email exchanges show, “people sharing their perspective, and the course of developing a response and a modernization plan is around incorporating those perspectives and saying, ‘What is it that the organization is going to be focused on going forward?’”

Asked twice to confirm whether the counter stores will be converted to self-service, Hill responded, “That will be part of our modernization effort” and, “Again, we’re going to modernize the fleet.”

Hill, Williams and Dunham all reiterated that every ABC store will be modernized in the future, but the plan won’t come to fruition immediately because it’s in the beginning stages.

“Give it time. Either your story will age well or my story will age well because it all has to be acted upon,” said Williams. “It’s not like we’re talking conceptually, we’re saying the stores are going to synergize.” 


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Meghan McIntyre

Meghan McIntyre is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in print and online journalism, where she received a faculty award for her work. She has stories covering Virginia government and politics published in various outlets across the state through Capital News Service, a course in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at VCU. She was also a previous news intern at VPM and briefly freelanced for The Farmville Herald and The Suffolk News-Herald.