Omnivore - UPDATE: Two sides to the Atlanta BYOB story

A ‘he said, she said” over a bottle of wine?

Yesterday I posted a story on an apparent crackdown by the city of Atlanta on restaurants allowing guests to bring in their own wine. Since then, there’s been a general hubbub on Twitter, with two sides to the story emerging.

On one side is the Georgia Restaurant Association, which issued a warning to its members on April 22 citing “renewed enforcement of the long dormant Bottle House license requirement.” On the other side is the city itself.

On Twitter, Mayor Kasim Reed called the story “garbage” and “manufactured,” saying he would personally look into it.

Now, the mayor’s office has issued the following statement, provided by Carlos Campos, Reed’s interim communications director:

? ? ?
The story is absolute nonsense, and has no basis in fact whatsoever. There is no “crackdown” on bottle house permits. An ordinance for such a permit has existed for at least 20 years in the City of Atlanta, and there has been no recent policy change or directive, to step up enforcement. In fact, the Atlanta Police Department’s License & Permits Unit has not issued a citation for failure to have a bottle permit in recent memory, and certainly not in 2014. It’s very unfortunate that this false narrative appears to have gained traction throughout the restaurant community, and we sincerely hope it can be laid to rest immediately.

So what’s the real situation? First, I’ll recap the facts, with a warning that this is a lengthy read:

- The city of Atlanta has a longstanding ordinance pertaining to “bottle houses” - which are defined by the city as “any place of business open to the public or any private club which allows patrons or members to bring in and consume alcoholic beverages on the premises.” Per this ordinance, any restaurant that wants to allow diners to bring in wine must apply for this license (which is distinct from the restaurant’s general liquor license) and pay an extra $2,000 per year to the city.

- This ordinance, all sides agree, has not been enforced historically - essentially allowing restaurants to offer BYOB at their discretion, whether they charge a “corkage fee” or not.

- The GRA has stated that the city has not even issued any of these “bottle house” permits in at least 15 years (which makes sense in an environment where the ordinance is not being enforced, though I have yet to receive confirmation from the city to this assertion).

- The city-designated Alcohol Technical Advisory Group II recommended to the Atlanta City Council in May 2013 that, among 50 other reforms, the “bottle house” designation be eliminated and the ordinance be changed to allow any restaurant with a liquor license to also allow BYOB (at their discretion), whether with a corkage fee or not. (The city council and the mayor did not act on this recommendation.)

- The GRA recently issued a warning to its members saying that they should now comply with the city ordinance, which has not been historically enforced, citing “renewed enforcement of the long dormant Bottle House license requirement.”

- Several restaurants that previously allowed BYOB have, as of May 1, now stopped that practice - including prominent restaurant groups like Fifth Group and Concentrics Restaurants.

- Diners at these restaurants have noticed the change in policy, and staff has confirmed the change in restaurant BYOB policy.

- Many diners have expressed an intent to take a least a portion of their business elsewhere - like restaurants in Decatur or Marietta - if they are banned from bringing wine to city restaurants.

So what don’t we know?

We don’t know the basis for the GRA’s warning. GRA Executive Director Karen Bremer is out of the country until Tuesday. Before I received the statement from the mayor’s office, I received a quote from Bremer about its warning to restaurants, but it did not address the situation that led to that warning. Bremer stated:

”... to allow BYOB in the City of Atlanta, a restaurant needs a Bottle House license and a traditional on premise consumption license. Yet for the past fifteen years or more, the City of Atlanta has not issued a single Bottle House license. The annual Bottle House license fee of $2,000 is extremely high and the penalties for allowing BYOB without a Bottle House license are clearly severe. Cobb County only requires an additional $100 for their Corkage License, which compared to City of Atlanta, is a drastic difference. Also, the penalties for allowing BYOB without a Bottle House License will result in a $2,500 fine and a 5 day suspension of their liquor license, along with a second fine of $2,500 and an additional 5 days suspension for failure to supervise their establishment.”

I do know of one restaurant that says it received a BYOB citation this year from the city (and is appealing it) so the mayor’s assertion might not be entirely correct. This restaurant was in its first week of operation, and it’s possible the city could frame the BYOB citation in the context of the restaurant’s overall liquor-license status.

So, for now, we don’t have the evidence to definitively say if one side or the other (or both, or neither) are in the right.

As for the impact of all this, we can surely say that Atlanta diners, at least a portion of them, enjoy the opportunity to BYOB and are happy to pay restaurants a fee to do so. We can say that Atlanta diners who enjoy BYOB will take a portion of their businesses to restaurants that allow that - and will likewise take business away from restaurants that don’t, whether by the restaurant’s choice or through city enforcement. We can say that many Atlanta restaurants have seen the benefits of offering BYOB over the years and would prefer to continue doing so. We can also say that many Atlanta restaurants are now operating under a cloud of doubt as to whether or not they will be punished for allowing BYOB - thus depriving diners of that option and likely hurting the restaurants’ business.

Hopefully soon we’ll be able to say definitively whether or not restaurants in Atlanta can safely go back to allowing BYOB, and whether or not the city will require a “bottle house” permit to do so. The mayor’s office today says “yes” to the first question, with an implied “no” on the second question (as in, “no, you do not need to bother with that extra license, we will not enforce that”).

For everyone’s sake - the city, the city’s restaurants, the restaurants’ patrons - let’s hope the two sides fully align soon. And then maybe the mayor’s office, the city council, the industry, and the public can revisit the recommendations made by the Alcohol Technical Advisory Group II. It could make everything better.

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