February 12, 1996 in Nation/World

New Law May Overserve Public Critics Fear Consequences Of New Rules That Allow Liquor At Taverns

Graham Vink Staff writer
 

Little-noticed rule changes by the Washington state Liquor Control Board could significantly increase the number of places around the state where hard liquor is served.

Critics say the changes increase the availability of liquor at neighborhood taverns and fly in the face of efforts to reduce drunken driving.

The changes also could result in nightclubs that exist primarily to sell liquor - something Washington residents specifically wanted to avoid when they voted in 1948 to allow sales of liquor by the drink.

“It’s just another step toward a proliferation of alcohol,” said state Sen. Mike Heavey, D-West Seattle, who frequently takes an interest in alcohol-related issues.

Since the change in regulations last year, the number of restaurants in Washington where hard liquor can be sold has risen by almost 100 - and the total could rise by hundreds more.

Spokane police officer Robert Grandinetti, who keeps tabs on the city’s bars and taverns, is concerned about any increase. “When you mix hard liquor and beer together, … people may become intoxicated quicker,” he said, noting the growing popularity of “shooter” bars where customers gulp shots of liquor such as tequila.

Another concern, added Grandinetti, is easier availability of liquor at neighborhood establishments. “You could drive down to the local tavern instead of going to a bar or restaurant,” he said.

Since 1948, the only places in Washington allowed to sell liquor by the drink have been restaurants with Class H liquor licenses. Taverns may sell only beer and wine.

Restaurants with Class H licenses had to earn at least 30 percent of their gross revenues from food sales. But last July, the state liquor board eliminated the percentage requirement, though other rules still require limited availability of food.

Most restaurants opposed the change.

“We believe that in the long run, it will be detrimental to the food industry as a whole,” said Geneva Ward, president of the Spokane Restaurant Association. “We thought it could possibly promote irresponsible alcohol service. … My personal belief is that if you’re having trouble doing 30 percent food, you’re not a restaurant.”

Gene Vosberg, executive vice president of the Restaurant Association of Washington, which also opposed the change, said the impetus for easing the regulations came from “certain operators who had difficulty meeting the ratio.”

Carter Mitchell, a spokesman for the liquor board, said his agency supported the change because it reduces paperwork and frees up staff time.

Under the old system, Class H licensees had to file annual reports on liquor and food purchases and sales to prove they were meeting the 30 percent requirement.

“We were having problems keeping up on recording and data entry,” said Robert Stamper, liquor board agent in charge of the Spokane region.

The new rule requires Class H licensees to have cooking facilities and offer a full-service menu of at least five entrees for at least five hours between 11 a.m. and 11 p.m. A limited menu - sandwiches, appetizers or short orders, not just peanuts or popcorn - also must be available any time liquor is served. But that short-order menu, officials acknowledge, could be as limited as a microwave burrito.

Mitchell said the new rule will make it easier to enforce the food requirement. “It’s much easier for an agent to walk into a business and say, ‘I’d like to have something off the menu,’ and if they say the kitchen’s closed, they’re in violation, period.”

Restaurant owners fear a public backlash against the entire industry if problems develop at establishments that sell primarily booze, not food.

Ward said a preferable alternative would have been to have created a license classification for cabarets or nightclubs instead of changing the Class H rules.

“We’ve been working with MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) for a long time, and we didn’t want to do anything that would alienate them and hurt our cause,” she said.

MADD, in fact, had been unaware of the revisions, said Donald Lennon, chairperson of MADD Washington State.

If the new rules make the restaurant business a more attractive proposition - especially for tavern owners who might want to expand from beer and wine to hard liquor - the result could be many more places where liquor is sold.

State law allows one Class H license for every 1,500 residents. As of June 30, 1995, there were 2,570 Class H license-holders, not counting private clubs. Mitchell said the formula would allow approximately 1,000 additional licenses statewide.

In the second half of 1995, the number of Class H licenses around the state rose by 88, while the number of tavern licenses dropped by 48, said Chuck Dalrymple, supervisor of licensing for the liquor board.

The new liquor rules were supported by the Washington State Licensed Beverage Association, which represents tavern owners.

“It allowed some of the taverns who have a significant amount of food capability to be able to get a Class H,” said Vito Chiechi, the association’s executive vice president.

Making more places available where liquor can be consumed would seem to indicate growing demand for alcohol, but the opposite is true. From 1986 to 1995, average consumption of spirits in Washington state dropped 22 percent, from 2.3 to 1.8 gallons annually, liquor board figures show.

State Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton, who was contacted last summer by opponents of the regulation changes, said reducing the food requirement didn’t make sense.

“I was a little concerned about it,” he said. “You’ve got all the efforts to try to keep drunk drivers off the road. Part of the logic behind the H license and requiring food was to dampen down some of that. We were trying to stay away from restaurants that were kind of clubs.”

Even a Spokane Valley tavern owner who converted to a Class H restaurant last year doesn’t agree with the new regulations.

“I personally thought it was a mistake,” said David Thompson, owner of Dave’s Bar and Grill. “I think food is really a necessary part of any alcohol sales. It isn’t going to ensure anybody’s sobriety, but it helps.”

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: A rule change Old: Under the old rule, restaurants with Class H licenses had to earn at least 30 percent of their gross revenue from food sales. Class H licensees had to file annual reports on liquor and food purchases and sales to prove they were meeting the 30 percent requirement. New: The new rule requires Class H licensees to have cooking facilities and offer a full-service menu of five entrees for at least five hours between 11 a.m. and 11 p.m. A limited menu - sandwiches, appetizers or short orders, not just peanuts or popcorn - also must be available any time liquor is served.

This sidebar appeared with the story: A rule change Old: Under the old rule, restaurants with Class H licenses had to earn at least 30 percent of their gross revenue from food sales. Class H licensees had to file annual reports on liquor and food purchases and sales to prove they were meeting the 30 percent requirement. New: The new rule requires Class H licensees to have cooking facilities and offer a full-service menu of five entrees for at least five hours between 11 a.m. and 11 p.m. A limited menu - sandwiches, appetizers or short orders, not just peanuts or popcorn - also must be available any time liquor is served.


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