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Beer Call! : Mini-Mart’s Hot-Burger Ad Campaign Is Driving Customers to Drink, Anaheim Councilman Says

Times Staff Writer

The latest product at the am pm Mini Market--precooked hamburgers, two for 99 cents--received an unexpected testimonial last week from Anaheim City Councilman E. Llewellyn Overholt Jr. “I had one yesterday, and they don’t taste too bad,” he said during an interview. “Have you had one? You ought to try one. They’re not too bad. . . . For 49 cents, that’s not too shabby. I think they got a real winner.”

The endorsement was surprising because Overholt wants to ban the hamburgers, plus any other hot, ready-to-eat food, from the mini-marts. Selling them threatens to increase drunk driving, he said.

He will explain later.

Overholt insists he is willing to go to the mat over this issue. He has proposed an ordinance to ban sales of hot food anywhere gasoline is sold, and the proposal is headed for a City Council vote Tuesday. Overholt says he has no idea how much support he can expect from fellow council members.

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But, he added, if the mini-mart operators continue promoting their hamburgers, he will consider it “spit in my face” and show less restraint in pursuing the issue.

Arco, the oil company that franchises the am pm Mini Markets within its service stations, has labeled Overholt’s campaign “an issue just short of being ludicrous.”

“I think, frankly, Mr. Overholt is looking for something to get his name in the paper, because he hasn’t had anything else,” said David Boyd, Arco’s western director of government relations.

Overholt said the issue surfaced in 1981, when Arco came before the City Council asking for permission to sell beer and wine in its service station mini-mart within the city.

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The councilman recalled that he and other council members were reluctant to approve the request. The unusual factor, he said, was that gasoline was being sold, and “somebody would drop in there to fill up their tank, go on, perhaps some distance, and at the same time pick up alcoholic beverages for their consumption, possibly in the car while they’re driving.”

Still, Overholt voted with the 3-to-2 majority to permit beer and wine sales. He said the mini-mart owner needed to sell beer and wine to make a profit and “just because you buy beer and wine to go in a gas station doesn’t mean you’re going to drink it while you’re driving your car.

“Beer and wine is kind of a staple at a convenience market,” Overholt said. “I don’t see a big risk there.”

However, the councilman said he felt “duped” when he saw the recent advertising campaign for am pm hamburgers.

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“My concern is that hot food is meant to be consumed immediately, and where that is sold, then the beverage--whatever it may be--will be consumed immediately. And to have that going on in a gas station--and I still look at these places as gas stations--I think that encourages the consumption of alcoholic beverages while driving,” Overholt said.

Eat and Drink

He conceded that such meal items as prepared sandwiches have been sold for years in such mini-marts. But, he added, “a cold sandwich isn’t going to get any colder. I think if it isn’t hot, there isn’t the urge to eat it immediately.”

Overholt also conceded that he saw no one with burger and beer in hand emerging from the am pm Mini Market on Ball Road near Disneyland when he recently watched the store for an hour from his parked car.

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“They (Arco officials) say that very few people buy an alcoholic beverage with a hamburger, and that may be true, I don’t know. But they can,” Overholt said.

“I think what has to be done, obviously, is to test the real issue, and that is: Do people indeed buy alcoholic beverages with these hot items and get into their car and then consume them immediately?”

He suggested the Mini Market on Ball Road as the best test subject.

Ed Harrill, manager of the Ball Road Mini Market, said it would be fine to come in and watch the place for a few hours. And he was confident of the outcome. The burgers have been selling since May 5, “and they haven’t increased my beer sales,” he said.

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The store sells about 500 burgers a day, and the people who buy them “buy milks and things like that. We’re across from Disneyland and the hotels and motels, and they buy them for the family,” Harrill said.

It was a little before 6 p.m. Thursday, and Caroline Gonzales was behind the counter whipping up a stock of the burgers for the dinner rush.

The precooked patties she was putting into the convection oven came from meat plants in Georgia and Wisconsin. There, like all other am pm patties, they are cooked, flash frozen and shipped to Mini Markets around the nation, according to Don Davis, the chain’s franchise manager for Southern California.

The patties are then revived, placed on fresh buns, wrapped in foil pouches and put into a heated, self-service bin along with the cheeseburgers, the hot dogs, the nachos, the “Tater Stix” (a sort of elongated “Tater Tot” meant to resemble French fries) and the croissants stuffed with apple, raspberry, cream cheese, ham, turkey or jalapeno cheese.

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Messages of Warning

The hot foods are displayed 10 paces from the beer and wine, which take up about half of the store’s cooler.

Drunk driving obviously is on Arco’s mind. A placard in the window urges “Don’t Drink and Drive,” and so do the bumper stickers offered free to anyone at the cash register. The same message is printed on the paper bags into which merchandise is placed.

Also, a Sept. 23, 1985, memo taped to a wall behind the counter instructs managers not to display single cans of beer anywhere in the store, to put no beer or wine within five feet of the door, to put no beer or wine advertising in the store windows and to sell no beer, wine or gasoline to anyone who is obviously drunk.

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At the stroke of 6 p.m. the store was busy, and the evening’s first burger-and-beer buyer appeared. He bought a six-pack and two burgers.

Standing before the ketchup pump, the man said he lived in Anaheim. “I’m going to take the beer home,” he said. “I’m going to eat the burgers there, too. I’m going to drive over there and eat my burgers.”

“It’s ridiculous,” he said, after being told of the Overholt’s fears.

Wave of Buyers

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Another customer, a man in his 20s, bought one beer and, after kidding with the clerks, walked out and around to the back of the store. There, sitting out of sight, he drank it. He returned for a second beer later in the evening.

After a lull, a wave of buyers flowed into the store at 7:10 p.m. While many bought beer, only one customer bought beer and burgers. He carried them across the street to a motel and disappeared.

At 7:22 p.m., a car with six young men drove in for gas and five went into the store for burgers. All bought soft drinks. Behind them was an elderly couple, who bought one wine cooler and a small box of Cheese Nips, then walked away, arm-in-arm.

A man bought two cans of beer and two pints of vanilla ice cream. Another man--young with long, greasy hair and tattoos all the way up his arms to his black, “Black Sabbath” T-shirt--took two burgers, walked over to the cooler and took out a carton of milk.

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At 7:30 p.m., a customer came in who seemed to confirmed Overholt’s fears. He bought two orders of nachos and one can of beer. He was eating as he walked to his red pickup truck. He drove away, beginning to consume the mound of fiery jalapeno peppers atop the nachos. It seemed likely he would open that beer soon.

Customers kept coming as the evening pushed toward 9 p.m., but they bought mostly snacks, beer and cigarettes.

Beer and Wine Sales

By 9 p.m., Leroy Carter, the assistant manager running the shift, estimated that since 2 p.m. he had sold 150 hamburgers--about half during dinner hours--about 100 soft drinks and had conducted 150 beer or wine transactions. By far, the beer and wine had brought in the most money.

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But between 6 and 9 p.m., only four people had bought hot food and beer at the same time.

One had driven away with a six-pack and two burgers still within his paper bag. Two had bought six-packs and burgers but had walked to nearby motels.

A fourth looked as if he might need his beer to quell the jalapenos he was eating as he drove away.

Told of the observations, Overholt said he was heartened to be proved correct.

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“What it means to me,” he said, “is that you saw food and beer leaving there in a car. It’s the propensity. It encourages the opportunity. It’s the possibility that that would happen.”

The councilman vowed to press his demands for a ban on hot food during Tuesday’s council meeting and added that if Arco and other similar firms did not cooperate, “they’re going to lose their swing vote on (future) beer and wine in Anaheim. And they’re not going to like that at all.”

But Boyd, Arco’s government relations specialist, discounted the whole issue as a publicity stunt.

“We have been selling hot dogs (at mini-marts) for over a year,” Boyd said. “We were selling them at the time we went into Anaheim when we were seeking the alcohol permits. That’s hot food.

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“I think, frankly, Mr. Overholt is looking for something to get his name in the paper.”


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