MANCHESTER, NH – Mark Skiathitis has been selling lottery tickets at Temple Food Mart since he took over the place last year as proprietor of the shuttered Baker Street corner store his parents once owned. When he got notification from the Lottery Commission that “Keno was coming,” he was psyched.
Then, late last year the law was passed allowing for Keno in New Hampshire, and Skiathitis found out he would not be eligible to participate in the statewide Keno 603 initiative, which finally passed the state legislature after years of stalling out, lawmakers apparently were weary of abdicating revenue to Keno retailers just south of the state line.
As written, the law requires anyone offering Keno to also have a liquor license as a “pouring establishment,” which means Keno must be played at a bar or restaurant. That caveat has left Skiathitis on the outside looking in while those in the city who are selling Keno tickets are reveling in the increased foot traffic, food and liquor sales, and the 8 percent sales commission to vendors from each Keno dollar spent.
Skiathitis recalls seeing a news item about a business in Rochester which had sold $175,000 in Keno tickets as of February – their 8 percent cut of that would be $14,000.
“Here I am, a start-up business, where every dollar makes a difference. I look at that one example, that $14,000 in their coffers just for selling Keno. I’d love to have a Keno lounge here, where we could have a TV and seating and people could sip coffee and play Keno,” Skiathitis says. “Every time I hear about how great Keno sales are for New Hampshire businesses I get more outraged at how the law was written. I have to wonder, were there lobbyists there in Concord when the Keno bill was passed to make sure only ‘pouring establishments’ could get in on the action?”
NH State Rep. Bill Ohm, R-District 36, says there were no lobbyists involved – just legislators like himself who had worked for many years to get Keno through. He was on the committee that wrote the bill.
“This time it was a grand compromise between the House and the Senate, which took turns killing one another’s casino and Keno bills – money for all-day kindergarten funded with Keno did the trick,” says Ohm.
Adding a requirement for a license to pour alcohol mirrored the way Massachusetts started out with Keno, Ohm says.
“Massachusetts Keno was extremely popular – and you get mini-Keno parlors now, which are a little more widespread than we want to see in New Hampshire. We’d like to have this more like we see in Vegas, where you go to a food and beverage establishment with friends, or your spouse, and playing Keno is a way to linger a bit longer at the bar or restaurant,” Ohm says. “We thought it was complementary to the food and beverage industry.”
The competition between Massachusetts and New Hampshire when it comes to lottery sales – and liquor sales – is well-documented. In an August 2017 MassLive article, Mass Lottery executive director Michael Sweeney noted the impact an “aggressive” New Hampshire legislature would have on Massachusetts lottery revenue – without a state income tax, NH Keno players get 5.1 percent more in winnings than players in Massachusetts.
However, if New Hampshire continues to follow Massachusetts’ lead, there may be hope for Skiathitis and others like him. For a decade now, Keno-To-Go has been available not only in Massachusetts restaurants, but with local approval also in gas stations, liquor stores, and supermarket convenience stores like the one Skiathitis runs. Connecticut allows Keno to-go games in convenience stores, as do other states, including Michigan, Georgia and Tennessee.
Ohm says if the law were to be adjusted in New Hampshire, it would take political will. Anything’s possible, he adds.
“Going forward it’s tough to predict, but we’re seeing it becoming more popular and widely accepted so if it becomes, over time, more popular, then it just depends on what the political winds are. If towns say it’s good for us and makes money for education, then maybe we can expand it a bit to other than license-to-pour businesse,” Ohm says. “But I don’t see it as in the winds in the near term.”
It feels like discrimination to Skiathitis, who has been told by the Lottery Commission that if he opens up a restaurant inside his corner store, he can have Keno. Although that’s one of the items on his dream board, he’s still trying to reestablish the business his parents operated for decades on Baker Street, before it closed a few years ago. Skiathitis reopened it with the goal of not only returning it to its original splendor, but creating a new kind of community gathering space. He hosts frequent wine and craft beer tastings inside his store, but to get to the point where he could have a kitchen would require him to hit the lottery – or at least, be able to sell Keno to subsidize the expansion.
Local business owners know there’s money to be made with Keno. Skiathitis still talks about something he heard during the March 6 Board of Aldermen discussion, over whether the city should be eligible to take 25 percent of the 8 percent Keno revenue generated at the Derryfield Restaurant – something Mayor Joyce Craig proposed, since the Derryfield operates in a city-owned building. Under a previous contract with the Derryfield, gambling was not allowed. She thought that allowing them to have Keno – and requiring a 25 percent cut of the 8 percent Keno profits – would be a good revenue-generator for the city.
Aldermen ultimately voted her down, allowing Keno at the Derryfield but with no cut of Keno for the city
“Pay particular attention to Joe Kelly’s words [beginning at 1:38 in the above video]. He could not have made my case any stronger for me,” Skiathitis says.
The thing that also gets to Skiathitis is that Keno is performing even better than projected.
Just last month the NH Lottery Commission reported an 11 percent increase in lottery sales for fiscal year 2018, bringing in more than $331.8 million, with $33.9 million in sales over 2017 figures. KENO 603, which launched in December 2017, generated nearly $8.3 million in sales statewide. With more than 130 establishments in 65 cities and towns offering KENO 603, sales are averaging $400,000 per week.
And the pitch from the state lottery board is hard to resist – they’re looking for more businesses in more cities and towns to join the Keno revolution, using the following marketing language:
“KENO 603 is more than a new kind of fun. It’s a new way to profit! For every dollar sold for the KENO 603 game, you’ll earn an 8 percent sales commission – the highest in the country! Plus, you can earn additional bonuses by selling tickets with a $10,000 or greater top prize.
“And KENO 603 sales won’t be the only thing on the rise. More customers will be pouring in to play KENO 603, which will help increase food and beverage sales. Licensed businesses will also be able to sell all other lottery games along with KENO 603.
“So not only is KENO 603 good for your customers, it’s good for your business!”
Skiathitis says he’s ready to start a petition in New Hampshire to get lawmakers to consider a version of Keno-To-Go that could work at his place. He’s talked to other business-owners currently excluded who he says are all for it.
“If I could get some kind of commission from Keno I’d use it to make this a really nice place,” says Skiathitis, who has already done what he can to create a cozy atmosphere and sense of place at his store. There are nooks that pay homage to his parents, some Star Wars memorabilia and other whimsical touches, local artwork for sale by some of his regulars, and several relics of Temple Food Mart’s past, like an old egg scale on the front counter and the manual cash register his parents used for ringing up sales.
“Those commissions would save the day for Temple Food Market. I’d design something here to make it palatable to the state, and if they made a way for Keno to happen at places like this, it would only increase their profits,” he says. “I’m just asking for someone to look into it.”