Just by walking in to Park Hill Pantry, you can tell the owner, Robert Eaton, is in the Christmas spirit. The shop, located at the corner of JFK Boulevard and H Street in North Little Rock, is small. A Christmas tree hung in gold lights stands in the corner, fake snowflakes hang from the ceiling and the smell of coffee beans, tea leaves and cinnamon cider fills the air.
The shelves are stocked with spices and candies, but something's missing.
Eaton wanted to stock the store with Cocopotamus Holiday Truffles, but he can't. Some varieties of the popular holiday candy contain alcohol, about 3 percent of total weight.
The Pantry can't sell the truffles because the state prohibits the sale of what the law calls “adulterated” foods.
According to the law, the term “adulterated” can mean everything from “putrid” to “poisonous,” “deleterious” to “diseased,” “filthy” or simply “unfit for food.” It's also defined as a confectionary containing over one half of one percent of alcohol.
“I was hoping everyone would just say, ‘We don't see a problem with it,' but I think it's turning into a story of ‘The Grinch That Stole the Holiday Truffles,' ” Eaton said.
Eaton wanted to get permission to sell the candy but didn't know where to turn. Were these chocolates controlled by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission (ABC)? Or the Arkansas Department of Health? He didn't know. And neither, it seems, did anyone else.
After making calls to both the ABC and the health department, he wasn't able to find a clear answer on whether or not he would be allowed to sell the truffles. A local health inspector said that because the truffles were purchased from a candy manufacturer and not a liquor wholesaler, it would probably be OK to sell them.
Finally, health department lawyer Robert Brech confirmed that his agency regulates the boozy candies. “And unfortunately, there's no way to get around the state law,” he said. “Because the candies are considered adulterated, they cannot be sold.”
Eaton thought it might be possible to get some type of waiver. After all, the provision prohibiting the sale of alcohol-filled chocolates dates back to 1953. But according to state and city officials, it doesn't seem likely.
Jason Carter, North Little Rock city attorney, said the issue has never come up before.
“In my 10 years as a municipal lawyer I've never dealt with the question of how much alcohol can you put into a truffle before it becomes a regulated food. But to the extent that the state calls something illegal, we can't call it legal,” Carter said.
“It seems silly to everybody,” Eaton said. “It's one of those laws that society seems to have outgrown, but it's still on the books.”
Even if Eaton was able to obtain a waiver from ADH or the city, he might not be able to sell the candies anyway. His business is located in a dry area of North Little Rock.
“The whole thing, when you really stop and think about it, is pretty funny,” Eaton said. “If you're worried about people eating these to get drunk, you would have to eat about 50 of them. And it would be pretty expensive.”
Cary Tyson, president of the Park Hill Neighborhood Association, said local business owners should be given every opportunity to succeed economically.
“It's silly. And frankly, it's hampering his commerce which is unfortunate because that is a neat, unique business that has great products — especially a line like those truffles that could do well during the holidays,” Tyson said. “Places like that are really the kind of places that we'd like to continue to see in Park Hill. That's what we want to cultivate and whatever hampers that is unfortunate for economic development.”
Brech said the adulterated food law is enforced based on complaints. When asked if he would risk selling the alcohol-filled chocolates anyway, Eaton said that was highly unlikely, although he will still sell other varieties of the popular candy.
“Now that we have a final answer, we're probably not going to do it,” Eaton said. “It's a lot of red tape to go through just for a piece of chocolate. I just wanted to know what my rights were as a business owner. My marketing budget this season doesn't really include bail money though,” he said with a laugh.