In August, the Boys Market at the corner of Glenoaks and Van Nuys boulevards changed its name to Viva and began selling many more products aimed at Latinos, such as a variety of dried peppers, sweetened breads and Mexican vegetables.
The market also moved a display of Tecate beer to a prominent place in the front of the store and cut the price to $6 for two six-packs. Other nearby markets sell that brand of Mexican beer for as much as $5.75 for one six-pack. E. J. Brandy, a relatively cheap brand often consumed by the shot with beer chasers, has sold for two pints for $11.98, compared to as much as $8 or more a pint elsewhere.
Such discounting aimed at attracting more Latino customers has dismayed community activists who have been working to limit the availability of alcohol and turn around the area's reputation as one of the worst places in the city of Los Angeles for alcohol-related traffic accidents and fatalities. Research has found that lower prices often result in more consumption and a rise in problems such as domestic violence and traffic accidents, although beer industry representatives often argue that the research is badly flawed.
"We were getting a pretty good handle on things here" regarding alcohol, said Fred Taylor, a businessman and community leader who operates a store in the same shopping center as Viva. "Most of the liquor stores close at 10 o'clock, some are out of business and those that were causing problems have become good neighbors.
"Viva and their marketing strategy makes them not a good neighbor."
Fred Snowden, a vice president for urban affairs of Viva's parent company, QFI, said the company does not price its goods to attract any particular group of shoppers. He said that even when operating under the Boys name, the store had a large number of Latino customers and did not have to use Tecate as a loss leader to attract additional ones.
"Our produce is really one of the things we feature more than anything else, and all Mexican foods," he said. "Our strategy was based on the food end of it and not Tecate. This is certainly not a part of our overall strategy."
Nonetheless, Snowden has been meeting with community groups that disapprove of the discounting. And experts in the field have been harsh in their criticism.
"That's unconscionable, it really is," said Al Jeffries, head of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. "That is the kind of activity that is reprehensible given the problems we have with alcohol. The last thing we want to do is make it more available."
Now the Pacoima Coordinating Council and other local organizations are fighting an effort by another QFI-owned store, called Food For Less, to get a liquor license. The store, at 9635 Laurel Canyon Blvd., received a conditional-use permit from the city in July and applied for a state liquor license in September before opening in October.
Taylor, the coordinating council and the Boys and Girls Club of the San Fernando Valley in Pacoima filed letters of protest with the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Marianne Haver Hill, president of the council, said, "The basic sentiment of the group was that if we are going to make a stand, we should stick to our guns and say we don't want any more liquor in the community, whether it's from big markets or mom-and-pop markets."
She acknowledged, however, that the ABC is likely to approve a license for Food For Less and complained that her organization and others in the community were not notified by City Councilman Ernani Bernardi or by the city's zoning administrators about the license request.
"We feel we could have made more of an impact at the city level," she said.
Snowden said a store such as Food For Less does not contribute to such community problems as public drinking, drug sales or drunk driving because the store is mainly a food market and because it hires on-site security and does not sell individual cans of beer or the "short dog" bottles of wine favored by winos.
But Sam and Henry Rose, whose family has operated Eden Roc and La Placita markets in Pacoima for 31 years, have serious doubts.
"You're going to find that everybody else has to meet these prices to survive and this will become a whole war and everybody will become aggressive with it," Henry Rose said. "They're capable of buying thousands of cases and putting it away and selling it for a low price and nobody else can compete."
The Roses said the lowest wholesale price for Tecate that they know of is $3.12 a six-pack, and they and other small stores cannot afford to lose money on every sale.
Rose said he and his brother are proud of their longevity in the community and the intimate relationship they've built up with longtime customers and their families. More than one customer calls regularly and asks them to refuse to cash her husband's paycheck or to sell him beer, they said, because she's afraid he will get drunk with the money.
At least once a week, Sam Rose said, a customer will come in and ask him to put some milk, bread and eggs on account because the money for the week has run out. The store owner said he's happy to oblige.
In recent years, the Roses have hired security guards, developed a close relationship with the Police Department, cut the amount of shelf space devoted to liquor by 75%, shortened their operating hours and stopped selling fortified wines--all in an effort to reduce alcohol-related problems around their two stores. They also initiated the idea of selling beer in clear plastic bags so that people cannot drink on the street without being noticed.
Food For Less, he said, "is going to come in and they're not going to do what we do," Henry Rose said. "Pacoima is our No. 1 interest. We've been here too many years, invested too much time and too much work to see it all go away."