Most people can instantly tell the difference between a 7-Eleven and a Pizza Hut: 7-Elevens sell "Big Gulp" drinks. Pizza Huts don't.
But the Carroll County Board of Liquor Commissioners had trouble with that distinction. The board concluded that because state law prohibits chain stores, supermarkets or discount houses from having liquor licenses, it questioned whether it should grant a license to a Pizza Hut restaurant in Hampstead, the fourth Pizza Hut restaurant in Carroll County. The board reasoned that because the restaurant pays a "chain store" tax, it qualifies as a chain store, making it ineligible for a liquor license.
The state Court of Special Appeals heard an appeal in the case and recently ruled that franchised restaurants are not chain stores, paving the way not just for Hampstead's Pizza Hut to apply for a liquor license, but for other national chains such as Chi-Chi's and Red Lobster to test the county waters. The chains were leery about venturing into Carroll, a market with good potential, due to concern over the board's "chain store" interpretation.
A little unfairly, the liquor board came off as a bunch of rubes in the matter. They'd never heard of Pizza Hut? Hey, next week, we'll introduce them to a new-fangled sandwich called the Big Mac.
The board's rationale for its hard line on Pizza Hut, a place so wholesome it provides crayons for the kiddies to scribble on the place mats, was that it didn't want to get into a legal tangle by approving liquor licenses in conflict with state law. Such prudence is commendable, but the board went overboard.
Interpreting state law can't be done in a vacuum empty of common sense. The board should have realized that a) Pizza Huts hadn't been dogged for violating the state's liquor restriction elsewhere in Maryland, and b) if Pizza Hut were a "chain store," why was the county's first Pizza Hut in Westminster (the first one in Maryland) ever granted a liquor license?
The final irony is that Carroll County officialdom is happy to be able to welcome the popular restaurant chains now, for jobs and taxes, and the liquor board has always seen Pizza Hut as a problem-free operator. With the legal thicket now cleared, we're certain that Carroll residents, when presented with a pizza and a beer, will not require interpretation by counsel on how to proceed.