Utah’s liquor board awards one bar license, and takes another one away

LGBTQ bar Verse in Salt Lake City aims to open Friday; Sandtrap Cafe in Ogden, hit by a fire, loses its license.

(Sean P. Means | The Salt Lake Tribune) Verse, an LGBTQ bar at 609 S. State in Salt Lake City, has announced plans to open on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022 — after being awarded its bar license from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services' commission on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022.

The board overseeing Utah’s liquor laws started its monthly meeting Tuesday with two bar licenses to give out — but ended by taking away an Ogden bar’s license, issuing one to an LGBTQ bar in Salt Lake City, and setting up a special November meeting to hand out the other two.

At the end of November, members of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control’s governing commission said, they also will have three more full licenses and two half-year seasonal licenses to dispense, because of population increases. After that, though, there will be no more bar licenses available until the first of July 2023, when the next fiscal year begins.

The commission voted Tuesday to revoke the bar license of The Sandtrap Cafe, at 2851 Washington Blvd. in Ogden — which has been closed since a fire hit its kitchen in July. The vote was 6-1, with Commissioner Thomas Jacobsen dissenting.

Rayna Olsen, the Sandtrap Cafe’s owner, told the commission that she has been unable to reopen the Ogden bar, because the building is no longer up to code and the city removed all the power meters, so there’s no electricity in the building. She said she has a five-year lease on the property, and has hired an electrician and consulted with Rocky Mountain Power.

“We have no license attached to an address, if you’re unable to do business in that building,” Commissioner Jacquelyn Orton told Olsen, who replied that she’s looking at a new space for the bar — and had hoped to transfer the Sandtrap Cafe’s bar license there. When asked, Olsen acknowledged that she has not signed a lease for the new space.

Olsen said, on the verge of tears, “for a business to be gone because of a small kitchen fire, is heart-wrenching.”

“We’re a little limited in what we can do here,” Commissioner Tara Thue said before the vote to revoke the license. “Under statute, to hold a valid bar license, you can only be closed for a certain number of days. … You can’t be closed for more than 10 days without permission from [DABS] staff.”

Orton added that “all of us are heartbroken for you, … I feel like our hands are tied by the statute, but not only by the statute. Our hands are tied by lack of information and communication. We have to make this decision at this moment. We don’t even have the option to wait statutorily to see how things are going pan out.”

The one license the commission did award Tuesday went to Verse, a new LGBTQ bar at 609 S. State St. in Salt Lake City. The bar had been waiting months to get the license, and owner Michael Rapp told the commission they would be ready to open Friday.

Rapp — who is the former co-owner of the landmark Salt Lake City LGBTQ bar The Sun Trapp — said that he planned to leave the commission meeting to go apply for the bar’s business license. (Verse had been working under a temporary business license.) The vote to approve Verse’s license was 6-1, with Commissioner Stanley B. Parrish voting no. The meeting room exploded with applause when the vote was completed.

Rapp said that the Salt Lake Valley’s LGBTQ population — which he estimated at around 60,000 people — have only three safe spaces to gather, which is why he said it was important for Verse to open as soon as possible.

“We’ve jumped hurdle after hurdle, and met timeline after timeline,” Rapp said. “We met those obstacles head-on, and met them ethically and above-board. We didn’t cut any corners.”

Lining up and waiting

While Verse left Tuesday’s commission meeting with its license, 10 other businesses on the board’s agenda were left waiting.

Two of them — Salt Lake City’s West Side Tavern and Fisher Brewing Company — both have tavern licenses and are looking to upgrade.

Fisher’s co-owner, Tim Dwyer, told the commission his brewery was ready to go with a full bar license. “While we do have our expansion under construction, we could use the license today,” he said. Orton asked if Fisher could get by with a seasonal bar license, good for six months of the year, but Dwyer said the brewpub is a year-round business.

Among the nine new businesses planning to open soon, two said they would be ready in the next few weeks.

George Cardon-Bystry and Charlie Cardon, from the private social club Edison House, said they would be ready to open on Nov. 9, with an occupancy permit and a business license in place on Nov. 8. Cardon said a seasonal license would not work for them, because they operate on a membership model.

“Just to confirm, if we do show up to the [special] meeting, we will be granted a liquor license, that’s helpful for us,” Cardon said. “We’ve booked through the holidays. We’re calling employees and calling them to get everything marching in that direction. And we don’t want to onboard 70 employees without the guarantee of a license.”

Jacobsen replied, “we don’t issue guarantees. You’ve come to us in good faith, and we have to see where the world is on the date we have this meeting.”

Nate Smith, representing Lit Arcade Bar in Ogden, gave the commission an update on getting their building up to code, and said that they’ll be fully ready to open on November 14.

“We’ve had four soft openings up to this point,” he said. “In addition to just serving alcohol, we’re creating a destination.”

Lit Arcade Bar features vintage pinball machines. “We’re really passionate about pinball, and we’re creating a place that will bring in tourists, and will bring in money from out of state,” he said, noting that the bar would be a home for pinball tournaments (which they’re now hosting at other venues).

Smith told the commission that Lit would accept a winter seasonal license, if it meant he could get the bar up and running, unless it knocked him out of the queue for a year-round license.

The commission also approved 12 restaurant applications, but members noted that there are only 24 full-service restaurant licenses available before next July.

“We’re heading in the same direction,” Jacobsen said. “By February, we’re going to be in the same position with restaurants as we are with bars.”

Decisions on Edison House and Lit Arcade Bar were postponed until the special meeting, planned for sometime in mid-November. Other applicants will be considered during the regular commission meeting on Nov. 29.

Tim Ryan, chief financial officer for Bout Time Pub and Grub — whose Bluffdale and Saratoga Springs locations are in the queue for a bar license — complained that no other state sets its population quotas for bar licenses so high. The current system, he said, is throttling the economy in Utah.

Commissioner Tara Thue acknowledged the problem, and made a suggestion commissioners have repeated the last few months: Take it up with the Utah Legislature.

“This is a problem that we have based on these arbitrary population quotas by the legislature,” Thue told Rapp, prior to voting yes on Verse’s license. “We need a more data-driven approach, one that’s more aligned to our population. When you get your license, you’re going to be safe, but I want you to bottle up everything you’re feeling right now, and take it up to the hill.”