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Aggressive Enforcement of Restaurant Food Vs. Liquor Sales Controversial in Adams Morgan

By Anthony L. Harvey

[Note: Photographs accompanying this news story in the print edition can be viewed in the full PDF copy in the Current & Back Issues Archive.]

At its well-attended June monthly meeting, harsh and lively questioning by the Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) greeted guest speakers Charles Broadsky, a board member of the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board, and Fred Moosally, Acting Director of the Board’s regulatory arm known by its acronym ABRA. The focus of those questions revolved around the Board and ABRA’s stepped up enforcement of the food sales requirements for Adams Morgan restaurants with liquor licenses – “CR”s rather than those with “CT”s which are held by tavern licensees who are under no food sales requirements other than those they may have agreed to in so-called voluntary agreements with ANCs, civic associations, or nearby neighbors. Broadsky and Moosally were more than equal to the occasion, delivering an unusually informative evening session of the community’s well-known activist ANC.

Six of Adams Morgan’s 18th Street establishments are in ABRA’s and the ABC’s regulatory crosshairs. Two of these — Bobby Lew’s Saloon and Bossa Bistro and Lounge — have already had their licenses revoked for failing to be in substantial compliance with either the requirement that 45 percent of total annual sales be food or, in the alternative, that food sales of $2,000 per seat be realized each year. Both have appealed these license revocations.

A second pair of restaurants — Ventnor Sports Café and Grand Central — were allowed to keep their licenses but were fined $2,000 each and ordered to submit quarterly reports through the remainder of 2009. The Board further ordered that “the respondent[s] must also file self-certified figures by January 30, 2010.” The final pair of food sales failing establishments, which have not been publicly named, remain in investigative limbo.

Ventnor and Grand Central were found to be in “substantial compliance” with the 45 percent of gross sales rule, a range between 25 and 45 percent, and to be approaching the alternative $2,000 annual food sales per seat. “Substantial compliance” is an ABC Board articulated concept, one that has been devised to establish a monetary sales figure to serve as a threshold for restaurants which, in the Board’s judgment, are realistically striving to meet their statutory food sales requirements. The Board did not find the same demonstrated action or plan on the part of Bobby Lew’s and Bossa Bistro.

The ABC Board’s May 27, 2009 orders on Ventnor and Grand Central reflected a sharply divided Board. Both were four-to-two decisions, with Chairman Peter Feather being joined by member Herman Jones in opposition to the four-member majority. In the case of Grand Central, Feather and Jones argued that “the Respondent knew full well in advance of the submission of the [food sales] returns to ABRA’s auditors that they would not meet the numbers, but instead of proactively seeking to change their certificate of occupancy [C of O] with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs [DCRA], the Respondent seems to be attempting to surround the Board in the confusion over the ‘occupancy’ numbers and the ‘seat numbers.'”

Since the range of numbers cited in this case went from ABRA’s own investigators’ counts of 74, including 16 outdoor seats that are typically not counted, to 214 on the C of O inherited by Grand Central from the building’s previous owner/occupant, Fasika’s, the confusion is understandable and is one of the “fact” situations leading ABRA, according to Moosally, to its current exploration with DCRA of the possibility of including two numbers on an establishment’s C of O — one that would correspond with capacity and the other with restaurant food serving seats, with the $2,000 per seat being calculated using the smaller, second number.

In the case of Ventnor’s, the same two dissenters were unimpressed by the proprietor’s efforts to come into full compliance using the $2,000 per seat food sales requirement. “While commendable,” wrote Feather and Jones, “it is, in our opinion, irrelevant that the Respondent demonstrated increased sales in the last quarters preceding the Show Cause Hearing and projects to be in compliance at some point — such information is mitigation and not an appropriate defense.”

Board Member Broadsky, who voted with the four-member majority that allowed Ventnor and Grand Central to keep their licenses, nonetheless faced the brunt of the ANC and community’s ire over the two prior license revocations and the $2,000 fines imposed on Ventnor and Grand Central. Following ANC Commissioner Nancy Shia’s admittedly inflammatory question, “Why are you picking on these two businesses,” Commissioner Bryan Weaver got to the heart of the ANC’s concerns by asking several probing, assertion-style questions. Weaver compared what he characterized as slaps on the wrists for proprietors whose establishments had prior violations of violence and illegal liquor serving operations — including fatal stabbings inside establishments and bouncer beatings of patrons at curb side — together with after-hours of operations and repeated servings of minors with the license revocations and heavy fines of licensees whose proprietors’ infractions were simply regulatory food sales percentage (or per seat) violations.

Broadsky bluntly responded that the community had demanded that the ABC Board do something about the late night and early morning “night life chaos” in Adams Morgan, especially on the weekends, and a moratorium on conversion of restaurant (CR) licenses with their food serving requirements to tavern (CT) licensees had been requested and granted. Lift the CR to CT conversion moratorium and these establishments would no longer have those particular regulatory problems, observed Broadsky.

Maureen Gallagher, President of the Reed-Cooke Neighborhood Association, quickly responded with an articulation of the community’s strenuous objection to any more CR to CT conversions. Commissioner Bryan Weaver noted that Adams Morgan had seen a recent rise in the number of CR to CT conversions resulting in the number of taverns growing from three to 15 prior to the establishment of the current conversion prohibition. Several residents in attendance offered further objections to these license revocations, however, asserting that closing the “good bars and restaurants” in question for regulatory food sales violations meant the loss of many jobs to Adams Morgan and adjacent neighborhood residents.

During a follow-up conversation with Pat Patrick, President of the Adams Morgan Business and Professional Association, he told The InTowner of his recommendation that the ABC Board further explore how the two revoked CR licensees — or others experiencing the same “food sales” problems — might meet a per seat standard based on restaurant seats rather than capacity or occupancy seats. “The loss of any licensed establishments is a substantial loss of many jobs directly affecting the economic vitality of Adams Morgan,” Patrick observed. Attempts to reach Denis James, President of the Kalorama Citizens Association and a major player in liquor license issues, for his comments were unsuccessful.