A new Salt Lake City business that rents private karaoke rooms to families and groups will have to wait until April to find out if it will be allowed to serve beer.
On Tuesday, the state liquor commission said it needed more time to determine if Heart & Seoul Karaoke, 67 W. 100 South, should be granted a recreational beer license.
Bowling alleys, golf courses and tennis clubs are the typical businesses that request a recreational beer license from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The license allows only beer that is 3.2 percent alcohol by weight (or 4 percent by volume) to be served. Wine or spirits are forbidden.
To get the license, Heart & Seoul co-owners Brody Horton and Matt Smith had to convince the board that the company was “substantially similar” to those other recreational activities.
Horton argued that it was. Customers pay a per person admission fee and then rent a room with a music player and a microphone for $8 an hour, he said. The doors to each room have large windows, so employees can monitor activity. It is open only at night Monday through Saturday.
Commissioner Thomas Jacobson wasn’t sold. Most recreational amenities involve “physical activity of some sort or another,” he said. “This here is a stationary activity.”
Jacobson also worries that it would open the door to “all kinds of other activity — like a reading club.”
“We’re not saying it shouldn’t get a license,” commission Chairman John T. Nielsen added, "we just need to be concerned about the precedent we set.”
The board tabled the request until its April meeting.
While many bars across the country and in Utah offer karaoke, the entertainment is especially popular in Asia. However, the private room aspect often has a negative connotation in the West, as it often is associated with sex workers.
But Heart & Seoul, which opened its first location in Provo in September 2017, is wholesome entertainment, said Horton. “We maintain a family-friendly environment."
College-age students, 18 to 21, make up the majority of the Provo customers. But the business attracts many families, he added, including those who rent rooms for children’s birthday parties where kids sing songs from Disney’s “Frozen” and "Moana " to their hearts content. The business also has a larger open-mic area for those that don’t want the smaller karaoke boxes.
About 93 percent of the income is from karaoke sales, Horton said, noting that the Utah County location would not qualify for a state liquor license because of its close proximity to the Provo City Center Temple, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
If the Salt Lake City location — which opened about a week ago in the former Naked Fish restaurant location — is granted a beer license, 70 percent to 80 percent of sales would be from karaoke. The rest would come from beer and food (sushi is available for purchase on site).
To prevent underage consumption, those 21 and older would be given wristbands to wear and limited to three drinks each, Horton told the commission. All the patrons inside a room would have to be 21 or older to get alcohol service. Rooms with minors could not have beer.
Horton questioned what other kind of liquor license the karaoke business could qualify for since it is not a bar for those 21 and older, and it does not want to be a restaurant — where 70 percent of sales would have to come from food.
“I don’t understand what other license we could have,” he said. “It is a recreational activity, and people are paying solely to sing.”
Horton pointed out that the DABC granted beer licenses to several ax-throwing businesses last year. “Whether they’re holding an ax or a microphone, or paying for an alley or a room,” he said, “it’s an experience and, in my opinion, they are substantially similar.”
It also seems safer, said Commissioner Sofia DiCaro.
“Let’s call a spade a spade,” she said. “It looks recreational to me.”