Utah alcohol regulators are cracking down on restaurants that offer diners drinks while they browse the menu. State law forbids serving alcohol “except in connection with an order for food,” but until recently the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) interpreted that to mean a drink before ordering was fine.
Then regulators changed their minds. After conducting a series of undercover sting operations, the DABC fined nine restaurants in December—compared to five in the previous 11 months and just one in 2011. The violations carry fines of $300 to $5,000 and can result in a suspended liquor license.
Restaurant owners want to know what’s behind the policy change, but regulators claim they are just enforcing the law as written. “I have heard from quite a few licensees [restaurants] that a patron may order one drink while reviewing the menu but no second drink will be served without an order of food,” wrote DABC compliance officer Nina McDermott in a memo. “The law does not allow for a one drink exception.”
Not so, says former DABC employee Rick Golden, an attorney who now represents clients regulated by the DABC. “There’s absolutely been a change in policy, a huge change,” Golden told The Salt Lake Tribune. The crackdown came just in time for the 11-day Sundance Film Festival, which attracts nearly 50,000 people to Utah each January.