Here’s why three Salt Lake City businesses can’t get their bar licenses

Utah’s DABS commission debates over giving out one bar license amidst shortages, and delays a decision on restaurant licenses.

(Steve Griffin | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) An original neon light for the A. Fisher Brewing Company, one of the oldest names in Utah beer history. Fisher Brewing was denied, for now, in its attempt to get a full bar license for its Salt Lake City brewpub, after a meeting of the Utah Division of Alcoholic Beverage Services on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.

The city of Bluffdale will get its first bar, after Utah’s liquor commission approved a single bar license and bemoaned the scarcity of licenses for both bars and restaurants — a problem it places at the feet of the Utah Legislature.

Members of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services commission voted to give a bar license to the Bluffdale location for Bout Time Pub & Grub, during a contentious debate Thursday. The sports bar first put in an application a year ago, owner Tim Ryan told the commission, while construction was ongoing.

“We have not been ready to open, but we are now,” Ryan said over Zoom. “We’ve completed our construction, we’ve hired our staff.”

Dan Eckersley, operations manager for Bout Time, said that the company had already invested $1.5 million in the Bluffdale location — and would lose $40,000 every month it wasn’t open, much of it in maintaining their employees, though many would stay on at other Bout Time locations. Eckersley wore a T-shirt that read “Ready to open” in block letters, a shirt Ryan has worn to past DABS commission meetings.

Four applicants were contending for the one license, which became available because of changes in the state’s population. By state law, bar licenses are allocated by population quota, with one bar license for every 10,200 people living in Utah.

Besides Bout Time, the other three applicants who said they were ready to open immediately are all in Salt Lake City: Fisher Brewing Company, Squatters Wasatch Taproom (formerly West Side Tavern) and HK Brewing Collective.

Tim Dwyer, co-owner of Fisher Brewing, pointed out that his brewpub on 320 W. 800 South wanted to expand its event space — but that people who wish to book weddings want a location with a bar license so they can serve champagne. Dwyer also noted that because of Fisher’s current beer-only license, customers “can’t taste the IPA that we make on site.”

After hearing from all four applicants, the commissioners boiled it down to Bout Time and Fisher.

Commission chair Juliette Tennert said that, head to head, the economic impact of both businesses would be about equal — with perhaps a slight advantage to Fisher.

Commissioner Thomas Jacobsen said he also looked at the two businesses, adding, “The only difference is that one of these is in an area that’s underserved.”

He gave the nod to Bout Time, because it would be the only bar in Bluffdale, a town in southern Salt Lake County with a population of around 19,000.

The liquor board first voted down a motion to give Fisher the sole bar license, then approved the license for Bout Time.

The applicants may have to wait until May for another bar license to become available.

The Utah Legislature, however, is considering an omnibus liquor bill that could expand the number of available bar licenses.

The bill, when first proposed by Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, would have exempted the bar licenses given to fraternal and equity groups, like golf clubs, from the population quota — which would have freed up 40 bar licenses. When Stevenson presented a revised bill to a Senate committee this week, that exemption was gone, replaced with a tighter exemption for “a certain number” of licenses, which would pump about 20 new bar licenses into the system. The committee passed that bill to the full Senate.

Commissioner Tara Thue said that one issue not addressed in the omnibus bill is the shortage of restaurant licenses available. Thue said there are currently 18 restaurant licenses available.

That number, Thue said, “probably isn’t even enough to get us through the year. … We are out of full-service restaurant licenses, basically.”

Tennert said the board would start judging restaurant applicants with the same scrutiny given to bar license applicants — and make sure any restaurant getting a license was ready to open immediately.

The commission approved new licenses for two restaurants that are ready: The Kathmandu, at 3142 S. Highland Dr., Salt Lake City (which was switching from a limited restaurant license), and Gurus Sports Bar, 1091 N. Bluff St., St. George.

The commission asked representatives from seven restaurants hoping to open in March and April to explain, in detail, how close they were to being ready to open doors.

“I don’t want to ask about bar stools and neon signs and glassware and construction schedules,” Thue said, but that the current scarcity made it necessary.

Ultimately, the commission could not agree on which of the seven applicants should get a restaurant license — so the board didn’t give out any. Tennert said the commission plans to call a special meeting in mid-March to see which of the applicants were ready to open and to receive a license.