Breaking News: Two Adams Morgan Bars Have Liquor Licenses Revoked, More Could Follow (Updated)
Two Adams Morgan bars had their liquor licenses revoked for low food sales at yesterday's meeting of D.C. Alcohol Control Board, and more closures could be on the horizon for establishments in the neighborhood and across the city.
Bossa and Bobby Lew's Saloon have a stay of 10 days in which they can file a motion for reconsideration from the board. If the appeals are not successful, the liquor licenses will simply disappear -- they cannot be sold or transferred to new businesses.
The issue is that many bars and nightspots in Washington are operating under restaurant-class licenses, which require businesses to derive either 45 percent of their gross receipts or at least $2,000 per seat in food sales. (The other usual option is a tavern license, which doesn't require food sales. Those are usually limited, though, and some neighborhoods, including Adams Morgan, have a moratorium on issuing new tavern licenses to prevent a buildup of bars.) Restaurants operating as defacto bars and nightclubs has been a problem for a long time, but the ABC board has begun to take more action in the last year.
According to Adams Morgan ANC Commissioner Bryan Weaver, four other Adams Morgan establishments are also in jeopardy of losing their licenses: Adams Mill Bar and Grill, Chloe, Ventnor Sports Cafe and Grand Central. "There are 16 places in Adams Morgan that are in non-compliance," by not hitting the 45 percent sales mark, Weaver said today, but "These [six establishments] are making less than 25 percent. [The ABRA board has] drawn this line in the sand."
In interviews and in testimony before the board, representatives for both restaurants admitted that they are not currently complying with the law, but both claim there are mitigating circumstances.
At Bossa, a lounge with regular live music and art shows, the menu hasn't always been the focus. It has been selling food for the last eight years, though quarterly reviews found that, at some points, food amounted to just over 11 percent of gross sales. Owner Rob Coltun began trying to increase food income in 2007 after taking over from one of his business partners, according to testimony before the board. He hired restaurant consultants and reworked the business plan, and sales were at 18.8 percent for all of 2008, including 22 percent in the last quarter of the year. That total reached almost 30 percent in the first quarter of 2009. This growth curve, Coltun argued, meant that the business could eventually be compliant.
Bobby Lew's owner Martin Corboy is in a different situation. He points out that the previous occupant of his building, a bar and music venue called Staccato, did not have a kitchen at all, even though it was legally a restaurant. When Corboy and partner Bobby Lewis took over two years ago, they built a kitchen and began offering food. Corboy said they were hampered by other problems, including an agreement that the bar couldn't open before 6 p.m., which cut down on their ability to cater to weekend sports fans and happy hour kickball groups, and that the official occupancy of the business -- the number used to determine gross sales -- is 60 people, even though are only 22 seats in a 1,000-square foot building. Corboy eventually tried to correct both problems, getting the neighborhood to allow him to open earlier and trying to get his occupancy reduced, but the board decided it was too little, too late.
"We made a concerted effort to prove we could do it, but in this down economy, we're just not selling enough food," Corboy said today. "I could see it if we had countless fights or a litany of violations."
That's one of the interesting points of this decision: According to ANC Commissioner Weaver, these issues with low food sales are the first time either Bossa or Bobby Lew's has been in trouble with the law, and an establishment usually needs to have four violations before the ABC revokes its license. "There are other places that have had multiple violations for serving to minors, a stabbing and other violence, and those people still have their licenses," Weaver said.
Athan Tsimpedes, the attorney for Bobby Lew's, said, "Never to my knowledge has anyone's license been revoked for a first offense. It's not like there was an assault or selling alcohol to a minor -- it's about food sales, not an illegal act. There are other alternatives to shutting them down."
Weaver and Tsimpedes both told me that the Office of the Attorney General had asked the board to fine Bobby Lew's and suspend its liquor license for four days, and not to close it.
The ABC Board, however, was not swayed by this testimony, and, reading the letter of the law, voted 3-1 to revoke Bobby Lew's license (with three abstentions) and 6-1 to revoke Bossa's. The dissenting member in both cases was Mital Gandhi, who argued in the final ruling on Bobby Lew's that "revocation of a license should be done judiciously and only in extreme cases where the respondent is a violator of gross misconduct or egregious aspects of the law. Failing to meeting minimum food sales requirements does not rise to the level of extreme or egregious cases, absent extenuating circumstances, including, but not limited to excessive or repeated failure to comply.
"Moreover, there are other alternatives to revocation in this matter that should be considered and implemented, such as reduced hours and sales and service of alcoholic beverages, revocation of the entertainment endorsement, fines and/or suspension of the license."
The owners of Bossa and Bobby Lew's (and their attorneys) are set to meet with D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham, whose ward contains Adams Morgan, and try to work out an agreement.
Weaver is hopeful some sort of deal can be struck for the good of the neighborhood. "We'd like to see more restaurants, but ... these liquor licenses will just go away, and there will be no replacements," he said. "I'm afraid it's going to be five empty storefronts."
Corboy says the economic impact goes beyond the owners of the bars. "I employ 12 people and I'm the smallest place on the street. [Other non-compliant businesses] have 40 or 50 employees. Multiply that by 16, and that's the people out of jobs just [in Adams Morgan]."
On the other hand, Tsimpedes, who has represented other D.C. bars in litigation, said he sees bigger changes on the horizon. "This is not just about Bobby Lew's. To me, they're looking to change the landscape of Adams Morgan. They're using gross food sales to take liquor licenses away."
Original 2:02 p.m. Post
At a meeting of D.C.'s Alcohol and Beverage Control Board yesterday, Bobby Lew's Saloon and Bossa Lounge had their liquor licenses revoked for low food sales. (Both have restaurant-class licenses, which require 45 percent of income to be derived from food sales, and neither was anywhere close to that threshold.)
Adams Morgan ANC Commissioner Bryan Weaver tells me that there are 16 other establishments that aren't complying with the food sale levels, and four others -- Adams Mill, Chloe, Grand Central and Ventnor Sports Cafe -- may also have their licenses revoked by the board in coming weeks.
Bobby Lew's and Bossa have 10 days to file for a reconsideration of the board's decision.
More on this story soon.
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