Two Salt Lake City bars get liquor licenses — but plans stall for another bar’s revival

Ownership of the former Bourbon House was put in limbo, because of remodeling plans that would keep the bar closed until January.

Two downtown Salt Lake City bars were given their coveted liquor licenses Thursday — but the latest owner of the shuttered Bourbon House space saw his plans to create a new bar there thwarted by the state’s alcohol board.

The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services’ commission — holding their monthly meeting in Logan for the first time — approved bar licenses for The Gem nightclub, at 134 Pierpont Ave., and Sayonara, a Japanese-themed bar at 324 S. State St. (in the former home of Ginger Street).

The Gem is slated to open this weekend, club manager Henry Martinez told commissioners. It’s located in a space recently vacated by Echo & Karma, a pair of conjoined nightclubs. Echo’s parent company lost its lease, and last month forfeited its liquor license because of it.

Commissioner Tara Thue asked Martinez about security at The Gem, because of a record of assaults and bar fights at the location under the previous ownership.

Martinez said The Gem was deploying a “white glove” security approach, to de-escalate conflicts before they get out of hand. “The security that was there prior didn’t handle it that way,” he said.

“Your new approach,” Thue said, “gives me a lot more comfort in thinking about how you’re going to be dealing with this, and mitigating the circumstances of past ownership.”

Sayonara has been in the works for more than four years, owner Ashton Aragon told the commission. Aragon’s wife is from Japan, he said, and they wanted to create their version of an intimate downtown Tokyo alley bar.

“It’s going to be different than any other bar in the Salt Lake City area,” Aragon said.

The new owners of the former Bourbon House, in the basement of the Walker Center at 50 E. 200 South in downtown Salt Lake City, saw their plans thwarted, for now, by the commission.

The issue is that the new bar, to be named Repeal, would remain closed during construction until January — and commissioners said they were opposed to leaving a bar license unused that long.

“I’m concerned about holding up a license when we have so many applicants before us, and they know they are expected to be ready to be fully open before we even consider giving them a license,” said commissioner Jacquelyn Orton.

Kelly Howard, who bought the shuttered Bourbon House, said the space was recently tested for asbestos — and that rebuilding would begin as soon as those test results came back. The construction would be extensive, he said, with the old bars dismantled, paneling removed to the concrete, walls removed and replaced with steel reinforcement, and the kitchen expanded.

Orton expressed skepticism that all that could be done in six months. “We just see every month that the best intentions of applicants, when they try to make a wild guess as to when their construction will be completed, are never true,” she said.

Commissioner Thomas Jacobsen, looking at the $20,000 that Howard paid Bourbon House’s old owners for its liquor inventory and some kitchen equipment, was blunt. “I’m going to be real honest with you, sir,” Jacobsen told Howard. “What I’m seeing right now is that you’re buying whatever goodwill there is in the [old] business and the right to have a bar license.”

DABS staff told commissioners the plan would have been to approve the ownership change, grant a 60-day closure — and, at the board’s August meeting, have Howard appear and request an extension of the closure.

Commissioners said they were unwilling to give that long of an extension, and voted 4-3 to deny the change of ownership. Members suggested Howard could get in line and apply for a fresh license, when Repeal is ready to open.

The space where Repeal aims to open has been a bar for decades. It first opened in the 1970s, under the name D.B. Cooper’s.

Thursday’s agenda listed 11 applicants in the queue for bar licenses. Some have been waiting for months.

DABS staff told commissioners there are 12 bar licenses available, after the licenses to The Gem and Sayonara were given out — but commission chairwoman Juliette Tennert said the board would stick to its policy of only considering applicants who were ready to open right away.