It has been announced within these virtual pages of the St. Charles Patch that the City of St. Charles’ Liquor License Ordinance is currently undergoing a revision. Our City Administrator, Mr. Townsend, , framing the argument for these proposed changes through the lens that the City has a “preference to limit the number of tavern/bar licenses,” wants to “encourage more restaurants/dining in the downtown area” and that “the City is considering action to better differentiate restaurants from taverns/bars.”
The only problem with the proposed changes is that they completely fail to address the single biggest failing of the current liquor license ordinance, which is its absolute inability to differentiate between bars (a place where one goes to drink, and maybe have some food) from restaurants (a place where one goes to eat, and maybe have a drink). Good public policy must to be able to carefully delineate between these two types of establishments because liquor, while perfectly legal, is a substance that requires some manner of control to help protect the health, safety, and welfare of the community. In short, people typically do not go to restaurants for the purpose of getting hammered, but they do, however, sometimes go to bars for that purpose (and hopefully have the good sense to have a designated driver when doing so). Thus, if the government sees a need to regulate the sale and consumption of alcohol in the public realm (why else would they have a liquor license ordinance?), government must be able to properly distinguish between an establishment that is functioning like a bar from an establishment that is functioning like a restaurant, as one would reasonably expect more negative social impacts on a community to come from a bar than would come from a restaurant.
How does one know if an establishment with a liquor license is operating more like a bar or more like a restaurant? Well, common sense dictates that if the majority of the revenue from an establishment is due to the sale of liquor, it must be operating like a bar, while if the majority of revenue is due to the sale of food, it must be operating like a restaurant. Common sense also dictates that establishing a clear divide between restaurants and bars will result in better public policy.
How does our liquor licensing ordinance manage this divide? It really does not, as those distinctions were gutted from the ordinance several years ago. The ordinance starts out by setting up five classes of licenses: Class A is liquor stores, Class B is restaurants, Class C is bars, Class D is site-specific (hotels, motels, golf courses, etc.), and Class E is temporary (county fairs, Scarecrow tents, etc.). Looking at Class B licenses, the ordinance defines “restaurants” by stating that liquor cannot be served without a meal, and that the “intent” of the “restaurant” designation is that the “primary business” of the establishment should be for the “service of meals.” So far, so good. However, Class B licenses also have a “restaurant and tavern” sub-category where “all tables at which food is served shall only be served alcoholic liquor by waitpersons from a service bar.” Additionally, liquor “may be served from a holding bar” (the place where you wait for a table to become available), provided that a food is available at the holding bar. To me, that sounds a lot like a bar that happens to serve food. The ordinance also mentions that the “intent” of the “restaurant and tavern” designation is that the “primary business” of the establishment should be the “service of meals.” Nowhere in the code does it ever specify if a certain percentage of gross sales must be from food in order for any establishment to qualify for a Class B liquor license. Nowhere in the code does it ever specify a penalty if the holder of a Class B liquor license fails to meet the stated “intent” of the definition. Thus, if a Class B liquor-licensed establishment makes 95 percent of their gross revenue from the sale of liquor (what most people would think of as a bar), but maintains a kitchen and offers food at all the required times, that establishment is operating not as a bar, but as a restaurant in the eyes of the City government.
How on earth does that make any sense at all, and how on earth are the aldermen supposed to have any control over how many “bars” there are in town (Mr. Townsend took the time to highlight this as a primary concern) when an establishment can apply for a liquor license under the Class B designation (a restaurant, to the common understanding of most people) and operate, repercussion-free, as a bar that just happens to maintain food service? No wonder why the few merchants left on Main Street are sick of scrubbing the vomit off their stoops in the morning. Our ordinance, as currently written, and even as currently proposed, provides virtually zero distinctions between what most folks would think of as a restaurant and what most folks would think of as a bar. How can good public policy come forth from this lack of control?
What would a better vision for public policy look like? We really have no further to look than to Geneva. Geneva’s liquor license ordinance makes sense, draws clear distinctions between bars and restaurants, and even goes so far as to describe, in detail, the operational limits of a BYOB establishment. The choice, to me, is to either adopt the structure of Geneva’s ordinance, or to continue the charade in which we currently find ourselves. If we opt for the latter, we better hand out more pails and scrub-brushes, because the merchants on Main Street are going to need them.