No sooner had Gov. Gary Herbert signed legislation Tuesday freeing up 90 restaurant liquor licenses — and putting his stamp of approval on a new liquor-control chief — more than one-third of the permits were quickly snapped up by businesses that had been waiting for months to obtain one.
Restaurant developers have complained for years that Utah’s tight quota on liquor licenses was strangling their efforts to expand in the state. To finally address the issue, Herbert last week called the Legislature into special session, and lawmakers overwhelmingly approved creating 50 full-service restaurant licenses and 40 new limited restaurant licenses for those establishments that only serve beer and wine.
Representatives of local establishments and national restaurant chains wasted no time Tuesday in seeking and receiving licenses from the board of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC). Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings now will break ground for restaurants in West Valley City, South Jordan and Riverdale. And Long Horn Steakhouse, headquartered in Florida, will open eateries in South Jordan, Ogden and Midvale in November.
Liquor control chairman Richard Sperry is worried that the newest supply of licenses won’t last long. At some point, he added, lawmakers may want to consider combining licenses for chains into a single permit.
In other business, liquor-control commissioners unanimously nominated Salvador Petilos, a 16-year veteran state employee, as director of the troubled agency.
Herbert later concurred, and Petilos’ appointment now awaits approval by the state Senate, which probably will schedule a hearing and confirmation vote for August.
As head of the agency that oversees state’s liquor monopoly, Petilos will help manage an annual $300 million budget and all aspects of liquor sales, including warehousing, distribution and retail operations.
The DABC has been without a permanent boss since the last one was forced to resign under a cloud of legislative audits about a year ago.
“The agency needs someone who can effectively enforce the rules and law with transparency and integrity, and also manage a large distribution operation efficiently. Sal brings the right combination of skills and experience to the post,” Herbert said.
Petilos, 51, has no retail sales experience — a department deficiency criticized in a state-ordered consultant report — but he does have a background in law and as an analyst dealing with employee performance and state policy.
He assumes the helm of a department charged with representing the interests of both drinkers and teetotalers alike in a state where it’s illegal to open a can of beer in view of diners and where restaurant bartenders must be hidden behind a wall.
Petilos vowed that agency actions would be “transparent,” and that he would continue reforms begun by interim director Francine Giani, such as updating policies and procedures.
He brushed aside a question from a reporter Tuesday on whether he is a social drinker, saying only that he enjoys wine and food pairings. Social drinkers have long been a minority on the five-member liquor-control board, and one was not appointed until the 1990s.
“Whether I drink or not has no bearing on how I will run this department,” said Petilos, who must also work with the Utah Legislature, a vast majority of who’s members belong to the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which teaches its faithful to eschew alcohol.
Since 2008, he has been deputy director of the Department of Administrative Services. His duties included providing oversight on state policy and ensuring compliance with laws, regulations rules, standards and guidelines. He joined the department in 2000, serving as an auditor and a hearing officer for employee grievances.
Before coming to Utah in the early 1990s, Petilos worked in a New Jersey law firm from 1985 to 1993 representing mortgage lenders, negotiating real estate contracts and prosecuting and defending cases at the municipal court level.
He graduated from Rutgers College, in New Brunswick, N.J., and earned a law degree in 1985 from Fordham Law School in New York.
Liquor commissioners have been going through applications for a new director since last fall, shortly after then-director Dennis Kellen was forced to resign amid allegations that the DABC did business with Kellen’s son in violation of state regulations.
The Attorney General’s Office is investigating the allegations.
Since last August, Commerce Department chief Giani has been serving as interim liquor director, earning praise from state lawmakers and others.
Few qualified candidates initially applied because the annual salary was round $60,000, said liquor-control board chairman Sperry. Herbert has approved doubling the salary, which is subject to negotiation.
Sperry’s term as board chairman ends in July. Herbert has been interviewing board members, and is expected to name a new chair soon.