They weren’t just preaching to the choir. They were preaching to the pulpit, alter and the organist.
Tuesday’s DABC review held at the downtown library was a mixed bag. Well, they were a mixed bag if you consider which type of Subaru or Prius they drove for the open meeting to discuss recommendations for the upcoming legislative session. In a crowded meeting room on the fourth floor, every squeaky wheel in Salt Lake County came out to get their opinion greased.
I went because there is nothing like liberal outrage in Utah regarding booze. The only DABC meetings I’ve attended in the past were when I had business before the committee during The Woodshed years. I never felt comfortable in these meetings. Mostly because I was walking a razor’s edge with my license and I knew that they were a fickle bunch. A committee of non-drinkers running a $300 million a year industry seemed out of touch and probably added to the animosity for the DABC.
Utah is the easiest and most affordable state in the union to open a bar and the most difficult to keep in business. Contrary to what people say, club licenses are always available providing the bar owner is not oppose to owning a three-month seasonal license. The problem is that bar owners are not allowed to buy liquor at discounted prices, they can’t run specials or host happy hour. They have to keep their kitchen open for all hours of operation and are subject to severe fines for any violation including losing their ability to maintain their license.
Fines are rough in Utah. Break one of the gazillion rules that seem to change every legislative session and you would think that bar owners would only hire attorneys to bartend. There is little stability in the rules and continual education regarding the distribution and consumption of liquor is poor.
The fact is that most people don’t own a bar in Utah and they are frustrated about the rules regarding of alcohol in Utah in comparison to other states. Every complaint that I hear when I am behind the bar starts with, “Well, back in [fill-in-the-blank state], you can get [fill-in-the-blank drink] for [fill-in-the-blank price].” Exhausting. People want a more balanced system of getting their hands on hooch and they see the DABC as the gatekeeper to getting what they want.
Tuesday’s meeting was hosted by State Senator Ross Romero and State Representative David Litvack. Both liberal democrats in the Utah Legislature, they held an open forum to discuss citizen’s concerns for the upcoming legislative session. Romero and Litvack made a point of telling the crowd of over 140 people that it was to be a civil conversation before the august panel of local businessmen and community leaders. I think they were anticipating more opposition testimony. I think what they wanted was a wide-cross section of citizens to offer suggestions. Instead, the Mormons and Republicans stayed home.
I thought it was the town hall equivalent of a monkey court. Everybody looked the same in their REI apparel and they were rehashing the same arguments I have heard for the last ten years. The decade that I have bartended in Utah has produced pretty much the same points that were brought up at the DABC review. People are mad that they can’t get full-strength beer on tap, wine shipped into the state, have cold beer at the liquor stores or go to happy hour at their favorite watering hole. In a word, they want liquor sales in Utah to be more like any other state in the union.
However, through it all, there were some good (new) ideas brought up. Percolating through the audience, I could feel the excitement as each new speaker went up to the podium. I might be cynical and resolved to try and live with the laws that are in the place but the audience had a little bit of fight in them. Here were some of the highlights:
Wine clubs pair well with book clubs. For whatever reason, it is illegal for out-of-state vineries to ship wine into Utah directly to the purchaser. People at the DABC review would like this to change immediately. My suggestion to fix this problem is to issue wine club cards to people who want special bottles of wine brought into the state. For a small fee, ordinary Utahns can get permission from the state to have wine sold via the internet. Think of it as a driver’s license for merlot and pinot noir.
Once you have your license, you would be allowed to buy up to $5,000 worth of wine or 100 bottles a year. Anything over those numbers would result in a reasonable penalty. If successful, I think the same system could be used with beer sales from outside of the state. It could be the first step to easing the temptation of bootlegging vino in from neighboring states.
Get rid of the Zion Curtain. You want to know why the Zion Curtain is stupid? Because they came up with a name for the partition wall that separates people sitting in the restaurant from seeing the booze. Never has there been a more childish architecture design been created for the sake of protecting children. It is the worst game of peek-a-boo done at the expense restaurant owners. They are expensive to build, disrupt the flow of the room and demonize liquor.
The single best suggestion from the DABC review was having an official sign at the entrance of a restaurant telling patrons that they are entering an establishment that sells alcohol. I think it would have a two-part solution for people thinking about eating in a restaurant. For those that are afraid that it is not family-friendly (LDS), they can decide to take their business to a place that doesn’t have alcohol. For the rest of us, it can serve as a warning that you can’t get a drink. A $25 sign in front of the business is considerably cheaper than building a dedicated liquor room in the back of the house.
Give privatization a chance. Utah has a monopoly on hard beer, wine and liquor sales. People at the DABC review were licking their chops for the chance for the privatization of booze sales in the state. Ever since they took wine coolers out of grocery stores, people have lamented why they can’t get full-strength beer and wine at Harmon’s or Smith’s. I like a good liquor store. I like a place that sells whiskey, beer, smokes and porno. I also like a place that sells ice, cups, mixers and pretzels so I don’t have to make a dozen trips to make a decent Manhattan at home.
Utah is pro-DUI and pro-underage drinking. My definition of a blowhard is the “Yes We Can” bumper sticker endorser who starts his longwinded opinion on how to make Utah more like the New Orleans during Marti Gras. They always start with the same caveat, “look I am against drinking and driving and I don’t want alcohol in the hands of children…” I guarantee every single person who started their testimony with that statement had a fake ID in high school and still think they can drive after five beers. Notwithstanding, Utah does have the 41st lowest DUI fatalities in the nation. Not bad.
Keeping drunks from behind the wheel and beer pops out of teenagers should be the ultimate goal but idiots drive drunk and kids like to get trashed. Nothing the DABC has done to eliminate both of these problems seems to work. Quite the opposite, it seems like every time I hit a liquor store I am spooked out by the cardboard cutouts of kids hanging from the ceiling and the full-sized stickers attached to the sliding doors. How about we keep the ad campaigns simple with a universal agreement that no ID means no booze?
Don’t close any more liquor stores. Numbers don’t lie. Booze sales in Utah are good for the state coffers. If Utah is not going to privitaze liquor sales than make sure we don’t close any more stores. Independent auditor for last year’s closures, John Springmeyer, reported that every liquor store in Utah earns at least $250,000 in profit every year. He said that closing liquor stores is a dangerous prospect considering that the 42 liquor stores in the state earned $69 million in profits last year. Add the $14-15 million collected from the licensees, the final total is a lot of money. That’s like the profit from a Mission Impossible movie.
Utah is not normal. The laws of a state should reflect the state. They should serve the public good but also should be malleable enough to change when the citizens change. And you thought a political science degree from UNR was worthless… Utah is the most unique state in the union because of its relationship between the predominate LDS community and those that aren’t Mormon. It impacts every aspect of our lives. Somehow, we really don’t talk about it very much.
Non-Mormons try to be sensitive to the fact that LDS folks had dibs on the state while Mormons seem to be holding on to a past that it is quickly disappearing. In my ten years, I have seemed the political landscape shift slightly but I predict that there will be a categorical change in the next decade. It is hard to believe that the role of alcohol will not be the catalyst for this change.
I live in Utah for a variety of reasons but I take pride in living in this state because it is a proud community with fervent citizens. Those of us that choice to make Utah home do the best with what it is offered to us simply because the benefits of living here outweigh the negatives. The fact that a community meeting can get 140 people to talk about changing the liquor laws but nary a word about eliminating domestic violence, prescription drug abuse or homelessness is pathetic. Utahns might have family values but we are sufficiently deficient when it comes to community values.
Liquor laws need to be changed but there is a baker’s dozen worth of problems that need to be addressed sooner than wine sales on Sunday. I have been properly loaded for ten years in Utah and I have never gone without alcohol when I wanted it. Litvack ended the DABC review with a similar observation. He thanked everyone for coming to the meeting but encouraged people to make their voice heard during the legislative session.
On that note, I agreed with him. But I would still like full-strength beer on tap.
Ben Raskin bartends at Keys On Main Wednesday through Saturday. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin. He votes Democrat, drinks whiskey and listens to Pearl Jam.
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