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Utah liquor licensing starting to turn the screw on local businesses

Generic bar setup

If recent DABS meetings weren’t worrying enough for would be bar owners, the August meeting writ large the reality of a distressing future. Entering the eighth edition of this year’s disbelief fest, fourteen Utah bars turned up hoping for the best. Five business were ready to roll, three bar licenses up for grabs. But wait, things get better.

A grand tally of three more licenses are projected to become available due to population increases. Wait for it, wait for it, now through July 2023. Yep, you read that right. Tres. Trois. Drei. I leave you for a few moments to ponder the mathematical permutations of fourteen into three. Back with me? Got a double of something stiffening? Don’t worry, remember that’s still legal in your own home for the time being. O.k. let’s break the situation down.

Oh and before I proceed – let me be crystalline clear. I don’t have an ounce of quarrel with any of the businesses listed below, be they gargantuan or lilliputian. Nor do I have a single bone to pick with a frustrated commission, now granted an herculean task. The DABS are now damned if they do, don’t or dawdle. There’s no way to stuff this genie back into the lack of bottle.

I’ve written on DABS meetings for year after year, and I genuinely believe everyone from staff through to bigwigs do their level best to matchup the challenges of business owners with Utah law. But what’s a commission to do when faced with such an abject scarcity of resources.

What would you do? Who exactly would you turn down? Thumbs up, thumbs down. What ad hoc metric, rule or requirement do you now judge otherwise legal enterprises by, in order to empower or destroy their dreams. Tossing a coin would be as fair as anything. Penalty kicks? One for the soccer fans there…

Certainly in the case of The Coop by Roosters (who secured the first available bar license this month) a $750K investment didn’t hurt; that financial backing received from Davis County Council of Governments was noted by commissioner Tennert as impressive and worthy of merit, “That kind of investment from your entire community moves me, and we were all very impressed.” I can’t say I disagree and wouldn’t be equally moved if in the same position. It’s as good as any rubric, demonstrating a community desire for a business in their midst. I’d have given the exact commendation and credit. Why wouldn’t you?

If beaucoup buck investments are where we’re headed though, how do you say no to Edison House when their time rolls around? This private members club is set to open in the Fall and has undoubtedly spent untold millions on their dazzling build. At this months meeting, Edison confirmed they’re already making payroll, burning through $50,000 on wages a month at the time of writing. Do you prioritize them above or below Bout Time Pub, an operation whose numerous existing facilities already employee hundreds and deliver masses of tax revenues; the brand have at least two more big builds barreling towards completion.

What about the smaller guys? How do you weigh the merits of T.F. Brewing above Proper Brewing? Both top tier talents awash with sudsy medals aplenty. The former are hoping to triple the footprint of their SLC space and switch to a larger bar format, the latter are planning to open a new Moab outpost for a thirsty underserved area. Both have almost certainly piled a bundle of cash into their ambitions. I can’t pick, can you?

Downtown SLC’s Durango Bar and the People’s Lounge (also in SLC) secured this months other two available bar licenses. But would they be so lucky moving forward? Durango had all but been promised a license, with owner Pablo Hinojosa repeatedly appearing before the DABS since the Spring. Durango however are now set to open only four days of the week and commissioners expressed obvious discomfort. But that’s hardly the fault of the newly minted bar, who have dutifully complied with everything asked of them, month after month with nary a complaint. A move of the goal posts yet again at the final whistle would be capricious at best. Sorry, another soccer reference.

In recent months, commissioners have increasingly asked applicants about the scale of their operations, the number of seats they hope to fill, and ultimately – the tax dollars they might funnel into state coffers. It’s not an unreasonable avenue of inquiry, it’s one I would arrive at. How do you get the best bang for that metaphorical buck. That shouldn’t be a pressure the DABS find themselves against. Theirs should be to judge compliance and adherence.

The fundamental issue comes down to a legislature seemingly unmoved and unwilling to address any of the above. Last year’s session came and went with no real action urgency on the matter. Instead, mini bottles returned to shelves and we all rejoiced. Quite. The very real, very immediate issue of Utah entrepreneurs being stymied for no obvious reason, not that I can tell, barely registered in the past session. And again even a 180 in stance won’t hit the books until the Summer of 2023. It’d be cliched to call it sobering.

For the umpteenth time, let me remind everyone still reading that we’re dealing with an artificially created nightmare, only four years or so in the making. The current (per capita) quota for bar licenses in Utah is one license per 10,200 residents. Prior to July 2018 this was a more generous 1 license per 7,850 residents. This particular revision was made – and a seemingly arbitrary one at that – when the much derided Zion curtain fell.  A simple reversion to the quota we lived under for errr ummm, who knows how long, would quell the matter over night. No huge fuss, no massive change or upheaval, just some respite for honest hard working Utah business owners.

With the upcoming opening of the swanky Hyatt Regency and return of Outdoor Retailer, now isn’t the time to be depressing economic growth in Utah; let’s not even mention the eager talk around a possible upcoming Olympic bid. We’re not asking for the complete elimination of quotas. We’re not asking for a bar on every corner. We’re asking for sensible limits, for responsible adults, in regards a legal product.

O.k. pour me another and let’s get onto the good news. Here’s a few more winners of licenses less contended.

Full service restaurant licenses (liquor, wine, beer)

  • Lovebirds Hot Chicken, American Fork
  • La Casa De La Birria 2, Logan
  • Arempas Venezuelan Cuisine, Midvale
  • The Crack Shack, Riverton
  • The Local Market & Bar, Salt Lake City
  • La Fountain Restaurant – West Valley, Salt Lake City
  • Yurt, Solitude Resort

Restaurant ‘beer only’ licenses

  • Mainly Pizza, Leeds
  • R & R BBQ, Riverton

As a reminder you can read the full details of the meeting this month here and given the wonders of technology you can also watch the whole thing in cinematographic glory here. The Tribune also reported on more details of this month’s meeting including a large number of violations, and the prospect of increased license revocations as a result.

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2 thoughts on “Utah liquor licensing starting to turn the screw on local businesses”

  1. A compelling article about the bureaucracy of government. It frustrates me when the state can’t get out of it’s own way and gets bogged in it’s own inertia. What bugs me more, and I’m showing my own immaturity here, is when writers try to sound cute and/or pithy with analogies or metaphors and screw them up. Moving the goal posts is a football analogy Stu.

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