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BYOB: It can spell trouble

Times Staff Writer

Brooke WILLIAMSON had worked her way up through the kitchens at Michael’s and Boxer and she’d won considerable acclaim as the chef at Zax, and now -- at 25 -- she was a partner in her own restaurant, Amuse Cafe in Venice. Business was booming, the critics were raving, and every night the room had both the loud buzz of the hip “in” place and the reassuring warmth of the neighborhood hangout.

Then, without warning, came The Call.

It was an investigator from the state department of Alcoholic Beverage Control on the phone. Someone had complained that Williamson was allowing customers to bring in -- and drink -- their own wine and beer, even though her application for an ABC license had not yet been approved.

If she didn’t stop that illegal activity immediately, the investigator said, the police could arrest her and her partner, Nick Roberts, that very day.

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She stopped -- and business quickly plummeted more than 50%.

“We can’t stay in business at that level,” Williamson says, “but people want to drink wine with dinner, and if they can’t do it here, they’ll go elsewhere. The people who had a restaurant in our space before we opened [in July] let people bring in their own, and we thought we could do it, too, as long as we didn’t charge corkage.”

She thought wrong. And she’s not the only one. I know of at least a dozen restaurateurs around town who are making a similar mistake. I’d bet there are dozens more. Most of them -- and their customers -- have no idea they’re breaking the law. But it can be ridiculously difficult to get a license to serve alcoholic beverages; almost everyone, including the ABC, ignores the law ... until someone complains.

It starts with a call

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The law is clear. A restaurant cannot allow anyone to consume alcoholic beverages if the owner doesn’t have an ABC license, regardless of whether the alcohol is provided by the restaurant or by the customer. Section 25604 of the state Business and Professions Code, enacted in 1955, says -- in part -- that it constitutes a “public nuisance,” punishable by law, to maintain any “club room” or “premises” on which “any alcoholic beverage is received or kept, or to which any alcoholic beverage is brought, for consumption on the premises by a member of the public unless the person and premises are licensed under this division.”

But the ABC “basically turns a blind eye unless someone complains,” says Baxter Rice, the agency’s director from 1976 to 1983 and now an alcohol license consultant.

Rene Guzman, supervising investigator at the Inglewood office of the ABC, which received the complaint about Amuse Cafe, essentially confirmed that policy when I called him last week.

“We have too many license applications and not enough investigators, so we don’t go looking for this kind of violation randomly,” Guzman said. “Most of the time, when we call people on that violation, it’s because someone called us to complain, usually anonymously.”

Guzman says he receives three to five such calls a month, and restaurants are usually cited for the violation, then comply with the law.

Who calls?

Rival restaurateurs. Neighbors who don’t like the noise and traffic that a restaurant brings. Neo-Prohibitionists and bluenose busybodies who think any alcohol is the devil’s brew. Anyone with a grudge against the restaurateur or the chef or the landlord or ...

But why, apart from ignorance, would someone open a restaurant with no alcohol license and let people bring their own wine? Why, for that matter, would any restaurateur forgo the profits that come from selling alcohol?

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Getting a license to serve alcoholic beverages can be a costly, complicated and time-consuming process. That’s why. It’s not just the state ABC. A restaurateur has to negotiate the labyrinthine regulations of city and county bureaucracies as well.

It’s a red-tape nightmare.

I know one restaurateur who was told that he’d have to build two bathrooms for the disabled if he wanted to get the health department OK he’d need before he could be considered for an alcohol license. Unwilling to sacrifice space in his already small restaurant, he didn’t bother applying.

Williamson did apply. “But you can’t get it until you get a conditional-use permit from the city,” she says, “and to get a conditional-use permit, we have to have one parking place for every 100 square feet of restaurant space. For us, that means 12 parking spaces. But parking is terrible in Venice. We only have five spaces. We’ve been talking to businesses in the neighborhood about leasing seven other spaces, but no one has been willing to lease them to us.”

That’s one reason several other restaurateurs who considered her location decided against it before she chose it.

Josie LeBalch, one of those restaurateurs, ultimately opened Josie Restaurant in Santa Monica instead -- but only after an alcohol license battle of her own.

Unlike Williamson’s space, LeBalch’s previously had an ABC license. “But it still took me a year to get it transferred,” LeBalch says. “I had one neighbor who protested. That’s all it takes. One person. Some people just pay them off. I didn’t. But I did sign a private agreement with him, against my attorney’s advice, promising not to let my customers exit through the back door after 10 o’clock at night and post ‘Be Quiet’ signs outside and make sure the customers knew they had to be quiet and a lot of other things like that so he’d stop protesting.”

A city-by-city basis

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Art RODRIGUEZ, a liquor-license consultant in Pasadena, says several other cities have similar gadflies whose solo protests can stall a liquor license for months or longer. Between the gadflies and the red tape, Rodriguez has 160 “open files” on his clients.

Bruce Marder says it took him 3 1/2 years to get his liquor license at Capo in Santa Monica. “We have 63 conditions attached to our conditional use permit, and 48 of them involve alcohol,” he says -- and he blames it all on one protester.

Rodriguez says protesters are especially active in Santa Monica and West Hollywood. In contrast, he says, “Pasadena welcomes liquor licenses because they welcome restaurants. They like the business. It’s 100 times easier to get a license here than in Santa Monica, and 50 times easier here than in Los Angeles.”

Chris Heyman, one of the partners in Table 8 restaurant and one of Rodriguez’s clients in West Hollywood, says it took him seven months to get a license.

“You have to go through all kinds of inspections and public postings and background checks,” he says, “and because of budget cuts, the various government agencies have cut way down on the number of inspectors, so every step takes a long time.

“One ABC inspector told me he had 28 other license applications with paperwork pending, and each file was about an inch thick,” Heyman says. “We had to hire a liquor expediter, and that cost us $1,500 on top of the $28,000 for the license itself.”

Heyman wanted to sell distilled spirits as well as beer and wine, and that made the process both more protracted and more expensive.

Three weeks after Table 8 was scheduled to open last summer, the alcoholic beverage license still had not been approved.

“We’d hired and trained our staff and we were paying them, and we just couldn’t afford to wait any longer,” Heyman says.

So Table 8 opened -- without a license.

“We let people bring in their own wine and didn’t charge them corkage,” Heyman says.

No one complained and two weeks later, the license was issued.

That’s usually the way it goes.

But why does a restaurant have to be licensed if you’re drinking your own wine and the establishment makes no profit from it? No one seems to know for sure, but theories abound.

Since the law is listed in the state code under the heading “Bottle clubs,” and since it refers to a “club room” rather than a restaurant, some say it was originally intended to curtail “after-hours” joints, where people brought in bottles, drank to excess, then exited loudly and drove dangerously in the predawn hours.

But there are already laws against drunkenness, drunk driving and disorderly conduct.

Others say the law is a matter of liability and accountability.

“Suppose someone who brings his own wine to a restaurant serves a minor at his table,” Guzman says. “We couldn’t penalize the restaurant as license holder because there is no license.”

Or suppose someone drinks too much and injures another person in a car accident on the way home.

“Usually we’d investigate and find the bar or restaurant that served him,” Guzman says. “They’d be legally responsible. But if it was his wine, no one actually served it to him, so no one at the restaurant is responsible. It would be an extremely difficult case to prosecute.”

This all seems pretty ridiculous to me. The person responsible for serving alcohol to a minor in a restaurant with no alcohol and no license is the person who brought it in and poured it for him. The person responsible for getting into a drunk-driving accident is the jerk who drank too much and drove the car.

Why are we always looking for scapegoats?

Williamson has the same question.

After the ABC investigator called last month to say the police were on their way, “we called everyone with a reservation and told them they couldn’t bring wine,” she says. “Half of them canceled their reservations right then. After that, when anyone called to make a reservation, we told them they couldn’t bring wine; half of them changed their minds and said they didn’t want a reservation after all.”

But Williamson isn’t giving up. She’s still trying to lease extra parking spaces, and in the meantime she’s reduced her staff and changed the entire concept of the restaurant.

“We’re adding lunch service, and we’re downscaling to an even more casual cafe or coffeehouse so people don’t feel they need a glass of wine with their meal,” she says. “We’ll stay open all day and late at night and have more counter service and a more casual menu, with sandwiches and little plates rather than full entrees and formal dining.”

It’s not what she had in mind when she opened. It’s not what her parents had in mind when they took out a $100,000 second mortgage on their home to help finance the restaurant. But Williamson has always been resilient and resourceful, and she’s determined to survive.

I plan to support her by going to Amuse Cafe -- even if I have to drink lemonade.

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com.


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