Rolly: Booze brings in millions, with or without dinner
Commemorating the 80th anniversary Thursday of Utah becoming the 36th and deciding state to ratify the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that ended prohibition, the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America published an analysis of how liquor affects Utah's current economy.
The analysis, prepared by New York-based John Dunham & Associates, found that the total economic impact on the state is $658 million, and that the industry provides 3,210 Utah jobs and generates $131 million in taxes.
And that is despite the best efforts of the Utah Legislature to screw that up.
Imagine what the impact would be if the Legislature just allowed the normal market forces to work uninhibited by laws intended to stifle the very legal booze sales Utah's historic Dec. 5, 1933, vote guaranteed.
The Tribune has run scores of stories about that stifling the limited number of liquor licenses made available for restaurants and clubs based on a ratio of the state's full-time population without regard to the hordes of tourists coming through the state each year; the Zion Curtain law that requires restaurants to build a barrier between the dining area and the bar so patrons can't see the drinks being poured; the number of restaurant chains deciding not to expand in Utah to avoid the cost of the Zion curtain, and the nebulous interpretations of the state law that calls for patrons to order food in restaurants if they drink alcohol there.
That last command, and the way it has been interpreted, has caused some controversy in recent months and will be the subject of legislation Sen. Jim Dabakis plans to introduce when the Legislature convenes next month.
Dabakis was apoplectic recently when the State Liquor Commission decided the terms of the law could be met with a simple question to patrons when they walk into a restaurant: "Will you be dining with us today."
The Salt Lake City Democrat, who also is chairman of the State Democratic Party, compared the latest rule with a patron walking into a bowling alley and being asked: "Will you be bowling with us today?"
He said it likely could be great fodder for late-night comedians on national television and make Utah the butt of jokes in the eyes of potential tourists.
The irony is that the latest rule by the liquor commission is a liberal veering from past positions by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control regarding the intent to dine law.
An internal memo distributed throughout the department several months ago interpreted the law to mean that a patron could not order an alcoholic drink in a restaurant until that patron had ordered food from the menu.
That caused quite a bit of consternation in the food industry, since patrons often must wait for a table and are accustomed to ordering a drink from the bar they wait.
The public reaction caused the department to back off from that interpretation, which led to the "Will-you-be-dining-with-us?" rule.
Dabakis' proposed legislation, he told me, would do away with the intent-to-dine rule all together.
But that, according to Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, will not happen. And if a Republican who has taken the lead on alcohol legislation the past few years says it's a no-go, it's a good bet that it's a no-go, since the Republicans outnumber the Democrats in the Senate 24 to 5.
But Valentine understands Dabakis' angst, and he says he is willing to forge a compromise.
Rather than asking, "Will you be dining with us today?" Valentine says a sign in the restaurant could alert patrons that food be ordered with alcoholic drinks. Or the message could be added on the menu.
Those waiting for a table could order a drink from the bar and, once the drink is served, be reminded that Utah law requires they must order food if they have a drink in the restaurant.
There are many ways, Valentine believes, that the intent-to-dine law is observed without stirring the creative minds of the joke writers for Jay Leno, David Letterman and Jon Stewart.