Thursday, May 1, 2014

City of Atlanta cracks down on BYOB

Posted By on Thu, May 1, 2014 at 1:08 PM

Last night, a friend of mine texted me in a minor state of shock. He was at La Tavola, one of his neighborhood haunts, and had been told that they no longer allow diners to bring in their own wine. At least for now. Apparently, the city is cracking down. Because, you know, preventing wine crime is a major public safety concern these days.

I hadn't heard about any formal crackdown, so I started digging. Sure enough, I soon discovered an ominous notice from the Georgia Restaurant Association (copied at the bottom of this post verbatim from a post on its website dated April 22).

The gist of it is ... the city is now stepping up enforcement of a somewhat obscure definition of "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 go through an extra round of paperwork and pay an extra $2,000 per year to the city. So maybe it's all about the money, money, money? If the restaurant gets caught without that additional "bottle house" permit, the penalties can be severe - hefty fines and a loss of its regular alcohol license. Way to go, Atlanta! Make it more difficult and costly for small businesses to make their customers happy! That's just what this city needs!

A large number of Atlanta restaurants have historically allowed guests to bring in wine, most charging a "corkage" fee of $15-$25 per bottle for the privilege and the associated service and glassware to pour the wine. Now, with stepped up enforcement for those restaurants in the city proper, the practice certainly requires careful consideration.

Concentrics Restaurants (One Midtown Kitchen, the Spence, Two Urban Licks, etc.) has always gone out of their way to be friendly to diners bringing in wine, usually not charging any fee at all. I reached out to them to see if they had heard about the crackdown and what it might mean for their restaurants' corkage policies. Partner Todd Rushing expressed a bit of dismay, saying, "I have operated restaurants in Atlanta for the past 27 years, and at no time during that period has the city ever enforced this ordinance." As for what it means for diners, he replied, "The restaurants I operated always allowed guests to bring in a special bottle, often times with no corkage fee. This policy has had to change with the new behavior of the Atlanta Police enforcing the BYOB ordinance - we no longer allow guests to bring in wine. This will be our policy until the city decides to get rid of this antiquated ordinance."

Fifth Group, which runs La Tavola (plus Ecco, Lure, South City Kitchen, etc.), has previously charged $20 corkage per bottle at some of its restaurants, which was waived if the table also bought a bottle of wine from the restaurant's list. For now, it appears that Fifth Group has shut down BYOB as well. I reached out to them for comment and haven't heard back yet - but will update this post as soon as I do.

In the meantime, if you're thinking about carrying your own wine in, please do call ahead and check to confirm the restaurant's current policy. And maybe let Mayor Kasim Reed know that you disagree with the city's current efforts to extract more money in absurd fees from the restaurants of Atlanta. You can find him on twitter @KasimReed.

While we're on the topic of carrying your own wine to restaurants - here's a recent list of "what not to do" when brown bagging it from Fredric Koeppel, a Memphis-based wine writer worth following if you're into wine.

Finally, here's the verbatim warning from the Georgia Restaurant Association. Read it and weep:

GRA Alert: Increased Penalties for Atlanta Alcohol Ordinance; Change in BYOB Policies

BE ALERT: RECENT CHANGE IN THE PRACTICE OF ALLOWING GUESTS TO BRING THEIR OWN ALCOHOL (BYOB)

The City of Atlanta Code of Ordinances requires businesses that permit BYOB, regardless of whether a corkage fee is charged, to hold a license as a "Bottle House."

Moving forward, the business is required to hold two (2) licenses: a traditional on premise consumption license and a bottle house license. The renewed enforcement of the long dormant Bottle House license requirement causes great concern. Those of you who permit BYOB may need to consider discontinuing BYOB or otherwise apply for a Bottle House license from the City of Atlanta (there is no corresponding state Bottle House license). The annual license fee is $2,000.00. The mandatory penalties for allowing BYOB without a "Bottle House" license are severe.

BE COGNIZANT: PENALTIES FOR VIOLATIONS OF CITY OF ATLANTA ALCOHOL ORDINANCES

First Time Violation: suspension of the alcohol license for a minimum period of five (5) days and a maximum period of one hundred eighty (180) days. On-premise consumption licensees will be assessed a mandatory monetary penalty of $2,500.00. The City of Atlanta adds to each alleged violation, a charge against the licensee of "failing to adequately monitor and supervise the employee" who committed the alleged violation, which results in another (5) day suspension and another $2,5000.00 [sic] mandatory penalty.

Second Time Violation: suspension of the alcohol license for a minimum period of thirty (30) days and a maximum period of one (1) year. On-premise consumption licensees will be assessed a mandatory monetary penalty of $2,500.00. The ordinance does not limit the "look back" period to the first violation, even if the violation occurred twenty years prior. Again, the City of Atlanta adds to each alleged violation, a charge against the licensee of "failing to adequately monitor and supervise the employee" who committed the alleged violation, which results in another (5) day suspension and another $2,5000.00 [sic] mandatory penalty.

Third Time Violation: revocation of the alcohol license.

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