Conspiracy theorists who follow the Buckhead bar scene will find plenty to chew over in a case that involves the possible shutdown of Peachtree Road's best-known nightclub, a well-connected developer and a flaming bar trick gone wrong.
In November, when word first got out that Mall of Georgia developer Ben Carter planned to replace the run-down Buckhead Village with a Rodeo Drive-like retail district, Tongue & Groove co-owner Michael Krohngold told CL he had no plans to leave his 12-year-old location between East Paces Ferry Road and Buckhead Avenue.
Shortly thereafter, he and partner Scott Strumlauf received a letter from the city's License Review Board ordering them to appear at a disciplinary hearing relating to a June incident in which a bartender set fire to a pyramid of drinks, which tumbled over and burned a customer on her back. When the dust settled from the Jan. 30 hearing, the LRB had issued a recommendation that the club be slapped with a $1,000 fine and a draconian 45-day license suspension – a punishment stiff enough to cause many bars to fold. Mayor Shirley Franklin has 90 days – until the end of April in this case – to uphold or amend the board's recommendations.
Tongue & Groove is one of several remaining nightclubs and restaurants expected to be affected by the planned $800 million transformation of the Village into Buckhead Avenues, a luxury retail playground. Several long-running businesses have accepted buyout offers and are closing as Carter gets ready to begin demolition on much of the Village in late summer.
The developer is in the process of buying the strip along Peachtree that includes Tongue & Groove and nightclubs Mako's and Club Uranus. Strumlauf says that while Carter has contacted him and Krohngold about buying out the remaining six-and-a-half years on the club's lease, the partners haven't reached an agreement and are reluctant to leave their successful location just when a long-awaited neighborhood upgrade is in the works.
Is the LRB action coincidental timing or a plot to nudge Tongue & Groove out of the way of planned development? Alan Begner, one of the club's attorneys, has long been convinced it's the latter.
"I was personally concerned that, just before the letter was received, Carter announced that he planned to level that block and put up a hotel, despite the fact that Tongue & Groove and other tenants hold long-term leases," Begner says. "Developers, I fear, are trying to steal businesses by asking the city to issue these death sentences to clubs."
Carter's company did not return a call for comment. Just last week, his proposal to build a hotel and two-story retail spaces where Tongue & Groove now stands was given a thumbs-up by the local Neighborhood Planning Unit B.
Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell, a longtime advocate of ridding the Village of rowdy nightclubs, says he was shocked to hear about the LRB's treatment of Tongue & Groove. "They are probably the most responsible club in the Village," he says. "It surprises me that it would be that harsh a sentence."
Likewise, Buckhead Councilman Howard Shook views the decision somewhat skeptically. "I've long believed that the whole LRB process is very difficult for anyone to follow or understand, and that can only breed cynicism and suspicion," Shook says.
Frequency, another Buckhead nightclub, was hauled before the LRB in December for two instances of serving alcohol to a minor, but escaped with a $5,000 fine and its license intact. A month earlier, when the Platinum 21 strip club appeared for similar violations, the board voted to revoke its license.
"What happens before the LRB is a crapshoot," Strumlauf says. "It depends more on how the board members are feeling that night than on anything factual."
But LRB Chairman Barney Simms says it's appropriate to hold a nightclub accountable for the actions of one of its bartenders – even if, as Strumlauf says, the employee was fired on the spot after the accident.
"We wanted the penalty to send the message that license holders are responsible for their customers' safety," Simms explains. "I would say we are very consistent in what we do."
For his part, Strumlauf is not quite ready to label the LRB's action as part of a conspiracy to force Tongue & Groove out of the way of development. "It'd be easy to draw that conclusion," he says, "but we really don't have the facts to prove it."
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