Communication key when applying for liquor license, working with LCB
Undercover Liquor Control Board officers entered the Blue Fish Restaurant off Birch Bay Drive on Jan. 18 and 19, after they received several complaints in a short period of time.
The officers wore plain clothes and sat down like other customers. Soon after they entered the establishment, officers observed violations: some of the bartenders were apparently intoxicated, a disorderly patron was allowed to remain in the establishment, and a few visibly intoxicated patrons were over served.
“Due to these multiple violations, an extensive violation history within a short period of time, and an immediate threat to the health, safety and welfare of the people of Whatcom County, the Board intends to cancel the Blue Fish Restaurant’s liquor license and immediately implement an emergency liquor license suspension,” said Washington State Liquor Control Board Chairman Lorraine Lee in a press release.
Emergency suspensions are an extreme measure for the Washington State Liquor Control Board (LCB), which issued only six suspensions in Washington state from 2006 to 2007. In fact, the LCB works diligently to make sure alcohol and tobacco-vending establishments are well-aware of how to legally obtain a liquor license and how to maintain an amicable relationship between the establishment and the LCB.
Blair Smith, lieutenant for the LCB’s Bellingham enforcement/education office, works with and oversees the four LCB enforcement officers that cover Whatcom, Skagit, Island and San Juan counties.
Smith said with such a huge coverage area, the officers are stretched thin and spend most of their time making unannounced visits to licensed establishments in their area.
“Most of it is talking with staff and ownership to make sure everything is in compliance,” Smith said.
Businesses that take the time to communicate with the LCB can often head off problems and avoid violations. Even so, applying for and maintaining a liquor license can be complicated at the very least, and knowing the ins and outs of a liquor license application can help make the process as painless as possible.
James Hardesty, co-owner of The Copper Hog, a new gastropub-style restaurant that just opened at the end of April, said the liquor-license application has been the biggest hurdle to opening the restaurant.
Hardesty said The Copper Hog had to apply for their liquor license twice in order to finally get everything handled: once because of an incomplete application and again because the LCB lost some of their forms while they were being processed in Olympia.
To speed up the process, Hardesty even had local and regional officials calling on the restaurant’s behalf, but the process still moved at a glacial pace.
Finally, Hardesty went to Olympia for a face-to-face meeting and was eventually able to expedite his application.
“The whole thing got silly,” Hardesty said. “It was really confusing for everyone involved.”
But The Copper Hog’s story is par for the course.
All too often, alcohol-vending establishments have their applications denied or delayed due to incomplete applications.
Smith said it is absolutely paramount that a business owner provide complete and specific information in their master application.
“Look at it like someone is down in Olympia looking at this information and they don’t know who you are; make sure there is a lot of detail for the licensing investigator to go on,” Smith said.
Susan Reams, communications consultant for the LCB, said once an application is filed, a notice is sent to the local governments and any churches and schools within 500 feet of the applicant’s door.
“(The churches and schools) may not want alcohol sold in that area because there are kids there,” Reams said.
The LCB notifies these entities as part of a broader investigation to determine if the establishment is fit to sell alcohol. This gives local entities affected by the applicant an opportunity to weigh in on the application.
Hardesty said he actively called the city government to help his application, and every time he had to reapply, the city’s cooperation made things go that much smoother.
“The city made it go a lot faster, whereas someone else might still be dealing with them,” Hardesty said.
Smith encourages all license applicants to do this.
“Go meet with that local mayor, county executive or police chief and let them know who you are and what kind of business you envision,” he said. “So when they get the notice from the liquor control board, it’s more than just a name on a piece of paper.”
The board will also call the applicant and interview them in an attempt to determine the business’ source of funds, that there are no hidden partners, that the owners have no prior drug or alcohol violations, and if they were a poor licensee in the past, Reams said.
“If an applicant has shown a reckless disregard for liquor laws, they go into our system for life and we won’t license them again,” Reams said.
Hardesty, who also co-owns the Green Frog Acoustic Tavern, said his track record helped him with this application.
“The Frog has never had any problems,” Hardesty said.
Getting off on the right foot
After a business has been approved for their license, next the local LCB sends the applicant an educational CD for the class of liquor license for which they have applied, and then an enforcement officer visits for a “technical assistance visit.”
The technical assistance visit is essentially an introductory inspection that gives the LCB an opportunity to make sure proper signage is displayed and that the owners understand the liquor laws, Smith said.
“It’s purely an educational visit to make sure we get off on the right foot,” Smith said.
Smith’s advice to business owners is just to have time set aside to meet with the enforcement officer and be sure to take the meeting seriously.
“One of the goals of the first visit,” Smith said, “is for the business owner to get to know their area officer and to create the kind of relationship where if the owner has a question, he can pick up the phone, call their officer and be comfortable enough to get answers.”
If a business is licensed but wants to reduce the risk of problems with the local board, communication and being proactive are the keys.
Smith said the LCB wants businesses to work closely and speak often with their enforcement officers but also create their own company alcohol policies that mirror Washington state liquor laws.
Businesses can also require that their employees get further training, such as attending informational classes held at the Bellingham LCB office on the first Wednesday of every month.
“That’s the kind of stuff we like to see,” Smith said.
Staying on the right foot
Occasionally the LCB runs across things they don’t like to see.
Complaints from the community, local police and LCB enforcement officers can be the basis for organized compliance checks or stings.
The LCB performs regular inspections where the officer drops in unannounced to a business they have not policed in a while and maybe checks a few IDs and sees how the business is doing.
“The vast majority of an officer’s time is spent on unannounced premises checks,” Smith said
Most compliance checks involve an underage volunteer working with the LCB to ensure that licensed establishments are not selling alcohol or tobacco to minors. These checks are generated by complaints and are chosen randomly from a computerized list created in Olympia.
“We pick people that are not deceptively mature,” Smith said. “We don’t disguise or alter their appearance to make them older or younger but we try to pick people that are the average and appear roughly their true age.”
Smith said the LCB recruits volunteers via word of mouth, community colleges and the Bellingham Police Explorer Post. These volunteers are not given fake IDs but will often not show ID or flash their underage ID.
“That way we are seeing what people do, not just because it’s a liquor board sting but what they do in everyday situations,” Smith said.
But then there are the other stings — when complaints lead the LCB to infiltrate an establishment undercover and look for violations like the sting at the Blue Fish Restaurant.
“We bring in another officer from a different office to order food and drinks and blend in to watch if (violations) are happening,” Smith said.
The stings don’t happen at random, Smith said, but are based solely on complaints and observations.
“So if we are seeing an excessive amount of DUIs where the drivers claim they were drinking at XYZ establishment, we may go in overtly or we may go in undercover as well,” Smith said.
However, the LCB takes no pleasure in busting violators.
“We all want to see success,” Smith said. “A perfect day for us is doing 15 compliance checks and there are no violations. That’s the kind of stuff we put in a press release.”