DABC tells businesses locked out of bar license: ‘Talk to your legislators’

At February’s meeting, the commission granted one license, leaving 15 other businesses high and dry.

(Sean P. Means | The Salt Lake Tribune) The interior of what will be The Pearl, a new drinking establishment in Salt Lake City's Central 9th neighborhood. The Pearl received the only available bar license from Utah's Alcohol Beverage Control Commission in its meeting on Feb. 22, 2022.

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One bar owner left Tuesday’s meeting of Utah’s Alcohol Beverage Control Commission happy, with a full liquor license. Fifteen others did not.

The Pearl, at 919 S. 200 West in Salt Lake City, was awarded the one bar license available at the meeting — and, because of the caps set by the Utah Legislature on how many licenses are issued, there will not be another available until May.

The commission’s chairman, Thomas Jacobsen, had some advice for the 15 other establishments who were turned away: “You folks should talk to your legislators.”

Jacobsen added, “If you all talked to your legislators and told them about the process, and how much money it’s costing you, they would learn something. … They need to hear from you. They do not know exactly all the challenges that everybody is experiencing. They don’t. They can’t, and the only way they’re going to learn is if you folks go talk to them.”

The frustration was evident among the owners of some of the establishments that were turned down for a bar license — which would allow them to serve hard liquor, wine and beer.

“We’re turning a lot of people away,” said Tim Campbell, owner of the Saddlebag Saloon in Eden, who was trying to trade in his tavern license (beer only) for a bar license. “In our community, there’s a lot of people who come in with their wives, who want a glass of wine — they don’t drink beer. We’re getting people who just don’t want the beer, so we’re looking to serve our community with a glass of wine or a cocktail.”

Jesse Wilkerson, co-owner of Trolley Wing Company, had sharp words for the board, accusing commissioners of making arbitrary decisions without considering the real-world financial effect on license holders.

“It seems like you’re searching for reasons not to give liquor licenses to people,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson has become a regular at DABC meetings — ever since the company’s namesake location, in a refurbished rail car in Trolley Square, closed last fall because the owners transferred their license to a larger space in Taylorsville.

Commissioner Tara Thue agreed with Wilkerson that the scarcity of bar licenses is “extremely frustrating. … We had one bar license and 16 applicants, and it’s very difficult for businesses to make decisions, to operate and to hire a manager.”

The frustration is likely to continue, Thue said. “We don’t get another [bar license] until May, and that’s going to be a terrible situation — because we have a number of other bars who are already ready to open, plus we’ll have more that are ready to open.”

One of the 15 establishments that was denied a license, Fenice Mediterranean Bistro in downtown Salt Lake City, has been open since October — and is trying to exchange its restaurant license for a bar license. Shades Taproom & Grill, Fenice’s neighbor on Regent Street, applied for a bar license, which they were denied, and a tavern license, which they received. Another Salt Lake City establishment, RoHa Brewing, now serves beer but plans to expand to serve wine and cocktails; they were also turned down for a bar license.

Even though The Pearl, which has been ready to open since January, got its bar license, owner Jacob Hall didn’t have completely smooth sailing with the commission. Jacobsen and Hall got into a somewhat contentious conversation about the lack of signage on the building’s exterior, and whether that meant the establishment wasn’t ready to open.

Thue noted that a licensing subcommittee had already voted in favor of granting The Pearl its license — and the commission decided that walk-in traffic and social media were an acceptable substitute for a sign or banner out front.

DABC’s director, Tiffany Clasen, briefed commissioners on decisions being made at the Utah State Capitol that will affect the commission and its work. The DABC has asked Gov. Spencer Cox to approve funding to update the agency’s IT infrastructure and retail operations. Then there’s the legislature’s omnibus liquor bill, which is still being worked over by legislators as the session winds down.

With the legislative session ending March 4, Thue encouraged business owners who want the state to allow more liquor licenses to reach out to their representatives — as well as Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, and Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, who jointly oversee the legislature’s Alcohol Policy Working Group.

Jacobsen advised the business owners to keep talking to legislators, even after the session ends next week, because, he said, “the next one will come around very quickly.”