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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Quest to classify Grail creates clash

Taryn Brodwater Staff writer

The Independent Christian Bikers of America will have a Christmas service at The Grail this week.

There was worshipping of a different kind at the popular Huetter, Idaho, nightspot Friday, though, as the Ultimate Males took to the stage in all their tanned, muscular and nearly naked glory.

Lang Sumner, who owns The Grail with his parents, describes the place as “family-friendly” and a “safe, protected environment” where the No. 1 rule – posted visibly – is that bad manners are not tolerated.

And though he boasts that The Grail has one of the region’s largest assortments of liquor, he doesn’t call the establishment a bar. Rather, it’s a “restaurant and multipurpose arena.”

How exactly to classify The Grail has been the topic of much debate, and the uproar could lead to statewide regulatory changes.

Parole officers, prosecutors and law enforcement agents say The Grail is a bar that attracts “gang-bangers” and trouble-makers. It’s a place, authorities say, where 18- to 20-year-olds hang out with adults who are “drinking, carousing and carrying on in a bar/nightclub atmosphere.” An assault outside the club in 2003, which left a young man dead, didn’t help The Grail’s reputation.

At a recent court hearing, Chief Deputy Prosecutor Lansing Haynes introduced a photograph of The Grail’s marquee as evidence. The defendant in the case was accused of violating his probation by going to The Grail when he wasn’t supposed to be in bars.

The defendant argued that The Grail is a restaurant. The photo showed a marquee advertising a “UV Party” and “Fantasy and Fetish Night” at The Grail.

“The Grail can call itself whatever it wants,” Haynes said at the Nov. 4 hearing. “The Grail is a bar. How many restaurants have UV parties? How many restaurants have Fantasy and Fetish parties?”

The ambiguity also is the basis of a civil lawsuit. Sumner, the establishment’s owner, sued the Idaho State Police after its Bureau of Alcohol Beverage Control refused earlier this year to renew his liquor license with the restaurant endorsement.

At stake is the money Sumner would lose if underage patrons were no longer allowed inside The Grail if it loses its restaurant designation.

A judge issued a temporary restraining order in April pending the outcome of the lawsuit. Sumner said both parties are in mediation now, so he couldn’t discuss particulars of the case.

Kootenai County Sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger declined comment as well, because the matter is in litigation, and Lt. Robert Clements of the ISP was unavailable for comment.

The concerns of law enforcement are clearly laid out in court documents, though.

Authorities said that unlike other businesses that have the restaurant endorsement on their liquor license – such as Chili’s and Applebee’s – The Grail doesn’t allow minors under 18 to eat there.

They also point to the fact that Chili’s and Applebee’s don’t have events like Jell-O wrestling and foam parties.

Sumner said people under 18 are allowed to come in – at least until 9 p.m. Then it’s adults only, and the 18- to 20-year-old customers have their hands marked in indelible marker. Those of legal drinking age are given bracelets.

As for the foam parties and other events like cage fights and unlimited-keg beer nights, Sumner said it takes creative advertising to lure customers when he’s competing with chains for business.

He puts up special walls to create a room for the foam parties. A machine mounted on the ceiling spits out about 10,000 square feet of bubbles every 10 minutes, filling the room floor to ceiling.

“It’s silly,” Sumner said. “It’s just a good, clean – pardon the pun – fun time.”

He’s also draped the walls with white sheets and turned on black lights for an ultraviolet light party.

Sumner said he allows people the opportunity to do fun things in a safe environment – like using the “conduits” running from elevated platforms to the ceiling to pole-dance.

Patrick Finan, 23, is a fan of the foam parties and one of 16 people who signed an online petition supporting The Grail’s restaurant endorsement.

He said The Grail provides a place for young adults to go, keeping them off the streets and out of trouble.

“If they’re legal to smoke and make decisions, they should be able to make a decision whether they want to be at a foam party and dance and have a good time,” Finan said.

Many of the readers who responded to an e-mail survey said that they hadn’t been inside The Grail and that its reputation and the advertisements on the marquee wouldn’t have them going there any time soon.

“Over the years, it seems as though the only thing you ever hear about the joint is trouble,” Charlie Burnham, of Coeur d’Alene, said. “It’s fairly obviously not just the under-21 folks who are involved.”

Kale Lowman said he drives by The Grail every day.

“I have never confused it for a restaurant and thought about stopping in for a bite,” he said. “Bubble fun night, male review night, party this-and-that night. Sounds like a great place to take the family to eat.”

The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department has tallied 83 incidents at The Grail this year. Last year, the establishment produced about twice as many dispatch calls. The majority of the reports were for fights, battery, thefts and noise complaints.

Sumner said the problems with the law decrease each year because he’s been working to enforce “zero tolerance” for unruly behavior. He said previous businesses at the same location earned a reputation that continues to haunt his business.

Because of the reputation, Sumner said law enforcement agencies are “gung-ho” anytime there’s a call in the area, and they send more cars than necessary. All the flashing lights scare off customers, he said.

Though the young man who died from the attack outside The Grail had been drinking there – as had the man who attacked him – the attack didn’t happen at the business, Sumner said. Instead, it happened down the street. He said it was important to note that both men were from out of town.

Rumors of gang activity are also unfounded, Sumner said. He said The Grail has a strict dress code taken from the Los Angeles School District. No team logos, jerseys or sports apparel, bandannas, sweatbands, “bling-bling,” droopy pants or sweatpants are allowed.

The diverse Grail crowd includes professionals in three-piece suits, men in work boots and the “pop-collars” – guys who wear dress shirts with the collar up and their hair greased.

But Sumner said the No. 1 customer, according to the database he keeps from scanned customer IDs, is the 25-year-old female.

He said The Grail is also a place where moms and grandmas can come have a good time with their daughters or granddaughters, who can serve as designated drivers. The Ultimate Males might attract such a trio, Sumner said.

“Grandma, you know, she’ll get tossed,” Sumner said. “Mom has a good time. Daughter, she’s 20 years old. She drives them home.”

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