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Utah’s bar license reforms now coming into final focus

Cocktails at Van Ryder

Remember when I told you to temper your expectations last month? Remember when I told you to not get too excited? You did listen, right? News from several outlets this week (FOX13, Trib, KPCW) seems to point to what is increasingly looking like the final iteration of Utah’s annual omnibus liquor bill.  One bill to rule them all. Well, rule all the drinkers.

Amongst the items on the proposed HB548 is the banning of high ABV products like Everclear, adding a few cents tax to your liquor bill, and also allowing guests to take hotel bar drinks back to their room. I’ll go over the full list when the final bill is stamped and signed. Until then, a look at bar licenses in the state – 2023’s hot topic item.

Antimatter, neodymium, Utah bar licenses – so goes the list of the most scarce resources in the Beehive. The relative exhaustion of Utah’s inventory has forced DABS commissioner’s hands into contriving what are now known as the “ready to operate” guidelines. Simply put: appear before the commission for your golden ticket to open a bar, and you’ll need to demonstrate your ability to open right now. No waiting on a final hire, no promises the stools will arrive tomorrow. Skip away from the meeting and be prepared to unlock your doors – today.

On paper the logic seems solid, why hand out a license to a business not ready to operate? As we saw in the previous year though, the lack of certainty can put businesses in a huge financial bind; having to support a litany of ongoing expenses without clarity or confidence. 2023 had plenty of precarious examples – Edison House having to retain staff to the tune of $70,000 per month while waiting indefinitely for the greenlight – just one.

As a reminder, the dearth of bar licenses is a completely avoidable one. One bar license is presently permitted per 10,200 residents in Utah. That number? Arbitrarily plucked from the ether some six years ago. With that in mind, and kudos to the state for appreciating that point – the folks in charge arranged a study of other control states. What exactly was everyone else up to?

At the start of this year, FOX 13 ran an interview covering what the study discovered. No one was surprised to learn that the ratio in other states, was indeed lower. Much lower. On average, like-minded control states saw a ratio closer to one per 5000. While you’d probably need the smelling salts if I told you Utah was set to double the number of bars overnight – lawmakers did throw out a range of one license per 7-8000 as something that might make this year’s bill. Note: in the notoriously debauched state of Idaho, the limit is one per 1,500 residents (per city). Just sayin’

Sean Means’ piece in the Tribune this week had some granular detail that proved enlightening. While I previously cautioned against getting too hot under the collar about Utah returning to a quota of 1 per 7850 (merely reverting to 2018 limits) it’s possible we now might see a somewhat racy quota of one per 7,246 residents. As Means explained in his article, expect that to boost the state’s current 350 bars by another 136. Crack open the babycham right? Wrong.

Those 136 new licenses will be doled out incrementally through 2031. Should that happen uniformly over the proposed seven-year period – expect 19 (ish) new licenses each year. And of course, sprinkle a few more in there for population increases. There’s just one small wrinkle in the plan.

Even in a year drier than the West Dessert, Utah managed to dole out 28 bar licenses in 2023. Slightly more names than that appeared (and still do) on wait lists. Remember that commissioners themselves called last year’s fifteen new licenses, “basically a Band-Aid”. This presumably makes 2024’s triage ostensibly more of the same treatment, albeit with a little kiss, and some soothing there theres.

What this all means, unless any substantial changes expect the DABS policy of “ready to operate” to continue to be applied to bars for at least the next half-decade.

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