Busting bars

Pub date June 23, 2009


San Francisco’s legendary nightlife venues are being threatened by a state agency that over the last two years has adopted a more aggressive policy of enforcing its arcane rules, in the process jeopardizing both needed tax revenue and a vibrant, tolerant culture that these bureaucrats don’t seem to understand.

At issue is an arbitrary policy of the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control. For the past two years, ABC has been on a campaign against a growing list of well-established clubs, bars, and entertainment venues in the city, an effort driven by vague rules and stretched authority. The community has rallied behind the bars and local politicians have spoken against ABC’s crusade, but the agency isn’t showing any signs of stopping.

Most recently, Revolution Café in the Mission District had to stop selling beer and wine for 20 days after ABC cited them for patrons drinking on the sidewalk adjacent to its front patio. Inner Richmond’s Buckshot’s liquor license was pulled because of technical violations of alcohol and food regulations, forcing owners to close their doors for a few weeks. Both bars stand to lose a substantial portion of their profits before returning to normal business operation.

DNA Lounge’s license is currently being held over its head because ABC saw operators as "running a disorderly house injurious to the public welfare and morals" after sending undercover agents in during queer events. State Sen. Mark Leno responded by telling the Guardian, "The ABC should enforce the law, not make statements relative to morals."

Café du Nord, Slim’s, Swedish Music Hall, Great American Music Hall, Rickshaw Stop, Bottom of the Hill, and a list of more than 10 others are also fighting long, expensive battles to stay open — but not because of underage drinking or drinking-related violence. In fact, most of these venues never had a run-in with ABC until two years ago. These bars’ livelihoods are being threatened because of an arbitrary technicality on their alcohol and food license.

ABC was established in 1957 with the mission to be "responsible for the licensing and regulation of the manufacture, sale, purchase, possession, and transportation of alcoholic beverages." ABC is funded through alcohol license fees, and has been run by governor-appointed director Steve Hardy since 2007, about the same time the crackdown started.

According to ABC spokesperson John Carr, the problem is that these clubs are deviating from their original business plans. The venues are "operating more like clubs, with only incidental food service." ABC didn’t notice any changes in these businesses until two years ago. In some cases, it took ABC 20 years to notice a change.

For example, when Café du Nord owners filled out the forms to get their business license, they were asked to predict the percentage of alcohol sales to food sales. Predictions didn’t pan out exactly, and ABC started an audit two years ago. The only recourse to an audit is to adhere to a random rule that requires these all-ages venues to serve 50 percent food and 50 percent alcohol. This rule is not a law, and ABC isn’t required to enforce it.

Slim’s has been cited on the same food/alcohol grounds. Its sister club, the Great American Music Hall, as well as Bottom of the Hill and most recently Buckshot all have similar 50/50 stories. All are fighting financially drowning battles with ABC. At some point in the court process, these bars must appear in ABC courts with judges hired by Steve Hardy.

Carr claims that only one venue, which he declined to identify, is being cited with the arbitrary 50/50 rule. All the other venues must adhere to their own specific ratio of food to alcohol, written in their original business plans. Regardless of the specific numbers, all are being threatened on the grounds that "they altered the character of their businesses […] which is different from the business plan they submitted to ABC when they were originally pursuing their ABC license."

Many of the bars in question have been around and thriving for decades with the same focus on business, music, and culture. Slim’s, for example, has been in San Francisco for 22 years, going the first 20 without a citation. But in the past two years, it has had four citations between it and the Great American Music Hall.

There is much speculation from all sides of this war about its causes, but no one seems to know why ABC, seemingly out of nowhere, started its crusade against music venues and clubs in San Francisco. Even the ABC is vague and unresponsive about this, broadly claiming it is acting on complaints and just doing its job.

Since the inception of the crackdown is a mystery, it seems fitting to focus on finding a resolution. The last thing anyone in this city wants is to see the clubs and venues shut down, something club operators say hurts the city’s culture. "Kids growing up with live music can only be good," said Dawn Holiday of Slim’s.

Beyond the culture and rich nightlife in question, bars and clubs bring in a significant amount of money to the state. Some of the bars alone can bring the state more than $5,000 each month in sales tax. In the current economic crunch, shutting down reliable sources of revenue doesn’t seem wise.

After two years of battles, ABC has taken some of the bigger hearings off the calendar in an attempt to come to a peaceful resolution. After talks with Hardy, Leno is hopeful for a positive end to the battles. Leno does not want to see any business closed and believes the best way to ensure a thriving nightlife is to establish a special license for the venues. If the only problem with our beloved venues is technicalities with the license, let’s change the license, not the venues.

In the meantime, the community is rallying around the bars and entertainment venues, showing its support. DNA Lounge started asking for donations for its legal proceedings. Visit its Web site for the full story and ways to contribute. When Buckshot reopens July 4, show up and support them. Maybe the best way to fight back is to go out and have a drink, listen to music, dance with queers, and over-indulge in unadulterated San Francisco culture.