Policy

D.C. Regulators Not Pleased With Pub Owner Whose Customers Don't Buy Enough Food

|

No TV. No standing. Good!

What's the difference between a restaurant and a tavern? For The Saloon, a pub located in D.C.'s newly bustling U Street corridor, it could be the difference between staying in its current location and finding a new home. As the Washington City Paper reports, The Saloon, one of my favorite low-key places to grab a burger and a beer (the no-TV-policy and the no-standing rule means it's never too loud or too crowded), is under fire from local regulators for not meeting the requirements associated with its restaurant-class liquor license:

Along with a few other establishments that seem like bars but have restaurant-class liquor licenses (easier to get than tavern licenses), The Saloon landed in trouble last week for not selling enough food. The place did 35 percent of its business in food sales when, according to the terms of its license, it needed to do 45 percent. That meant appearing at an Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board hearing. There, a city lawyer made The Saloon an "offer in compromise" that would have gotten it off the hook. All Jahanbein had to do was give the the municipality a little succor in the form of a fine, and submit to things like continued monitoring. Jahanbein turned it down. "They wanted to charge me $1,000," he says. "I don't know why anyone should compromise when they think their view is legit."

…The reason his spot fell below 45 percent in food sales is because, in true pub fashion, The Saloon attracts people who want to hobnob after work. Sometimes that means having a few beers as opposed to ordering food. "I cannot force the people to eat," he says.

Years ago, Jahanbein moved The Saloon from Georgetown to the U Street corridor, which in recent years has become one of the city's most thriving bar scenes. But he tells the City Paper that he's more than willing to move again if it turns out he's not welcome to do business. It's not as if Jahanbein entirely unwilling to play ball with the regulators, either:

He's willing to get a tavern license if the ABC Board thinks he should. But he knows local NIMBYs often block such authorizations, for fear of what a "tavern" will mean for their neighborhood's quality of life. That's the scenario that could make him pull up stakes.

Whether or not you think that establishments that sell liquor should be licensed by local authorities, it seems fairly pointless to attempt to distinguish between taverns and restaurants based on some arbitrary food-to-alcohol sales ratio. You'll always end up with boundary cases, like The Saloon (which has genuinely tasty bar food but is also a great place to buy a fancy pint or three), that aren't well served by either. Jahanbein is probably right that if he applied for a tavern license, the general antipathy toward handing out those licenses in D.C. means he might not get it. But a change in licensing status probably wouldn't change his actual business, which has a great history in the neighborhood and doesn't seem to bother locals. The only reason he's in trouble is because city regulators decided to enforce a licensing requirement that likely makes very little difference to most of folks who actually live in the U Street area. In theory, the point of distinguishing between restaurants and taverns is to allow neighborhoods to minimize the number of noisy, alcohol-only bars. But in practice, it just gives regulators the power to act like petty tyrants and, overall, makes it harder, and less appealing, to do business in the city.

(Photo by Flickr user Jenn Larsen.)

For more on what cities can do to attract and retain small businesses, watch Reason.tv's Reason Saves Cleveland With Drew Carey.