DABC takes away Bar George’s liquor license, a move that may cost Utah restaurateur millions

(Courtesy photo) Finca, the Spanish tapas restaurant in Salt Lake City, transitioned into George and Bar George in December 2018

In his 11 years as a restaurant and bar owner, Scott Evans has dealt with dozens of issues involving liquor — from license applications and transfers to special event permits.

But a liquor question arose with one of his Salt Lake City businesses in February, one that even Evans wasn’t sure how to navigate. He contacted his compliance officer at the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control for guidance.

Asking for that help, Evans believes, cost him the bar and restaurant license, thousands in lost revenue and possibly the sale of a $2 million historic building he owns.

“It really bothers me that after 11 years of complying and being on committees for the DABC, that I get harassed by them,” Evans said in a telephone interview. “I’m really disappointed in the culture. I’m afraid to communicate with them now; it’s so authoritarian.”

Amid the coronavirus pandemic — when bars have been mandated to close and many restaurants are offering only takeout and delivery — the state liquor commission held a special meeting Monday and voted unanimously to strip Evans of the liquor licenses he held for George restaurant and the adjoining Bar George, both at 327 W. 200 South.

Angela Micklos, the DABC’s new director of compliance and licensing, said that, under state law, Evans faced “automatic forfeiture” because he failed to produce liquor dispensing records for January and February, and Bar George was closed for more than 10 days without department approval.

According to DABC records, she said, the bar’s last day of business was Feb. 7 “and we had no request for closure until Feb. 19.”

Commissioner Stan Parrish said it was clear Evans was not following state code. “He was operating to exist and not necessarily to comply.”

It’s a surprising turn of events for the Salt Lake City restaurateur, who launched Pago in 2009 and has since opened other successful eateries, including Trestle Tavern, Hub & Spoke Diner, East Liberty Tap House and, most recently, Birdhouse.

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo Scott Evans poses for a portrait at Pago in 2011.

George — both a restaurant and a bar — was the thorn in Evans’ portfolio. Originally called Finca, he moved the dining club in 2016 from its original location in Sugar House to the historic building near the Salt Palace Convention Center and Vivint Smart Home Arena.

The new site was larger and could accommodate more groups and private events, but it suffered, after the state Legislature eliminated dining clubs in 2017. Hoping to breathe new life into the business, Evans changed the concept to George in late 2018, naming it after his late father.

Fast forward to December 2019. Evans said he accepted an offer to buy the building and the accompanying bar license. Such permits are in short supply and have sold for as much as $50,000 in recent months.

While the purchase details were being worked out, Evans stopped daily business but stayed open in January and February for numerous private parties, catered dinners and wine events. He gave his employees jobs at his other restaurants, bringing them back to work at George when there were special events.

At no time, he said, did he go more than 10 days without being open and serving customers — as state law requires.

Plans got confusing for Evans when the sale of the building fell through. There was a second buyer waiting in the wings, but starting the purchase process over pushed the closing date into March, when George had fewer events scheduled.

That’s when Evans contacted the DABC and employee Miraz Rasoul — his 11th compliance officer in as many years. “I told her we were planning to transfer our license to a new buyer and that our events were slowing down.” he told the commission during the hearing.

Evans said he wanted to know how he could honor his obligations to customers through March — when the sale would be complete — yet still maintain the license. “My goal was to be compliant.”

Rasoul, who has been with the DABC less than a year, was unclear about what to do and said she would need to talk to her supervisor about the next step.

That set into motion several weeks of emails, meetings and telephone calls, Evans said, several of which were not just “frustrating” but also “threatening."

Rasoul said it was Evans who made threatening statements during the process. “We were all very honest and tried to guide him as much as we could,” she told the commission. “We didn’t go after him.”

After receiving his Feb. 19 request for closure, the DABC immediately notified Evans that he had to forfeit the Bar George liquor license, and the agency would no longer allow it to be transferred to a new owner.

Without the bar license, the purchaser has since withdrawn the offer. Selling the building, as a bar, now may prove difficult. (It’s easier to get a restaurant license.) That bar license also won’t be given to another business on the waiting list. Under state law, bar licenses that originated as dining clubs do not go back into the state pool.

Evans’ attorney, Tanner Lenart, believes the DABC is not applying state law correctly. Restaurants that serve liquor must have regular business hours, but there is nothing in code that says a bar must do the same. “There is simply nothing wrong with having private events.”

Could the treatment of Evans be a warning that the DABC plans to get tougher on businesses?

In the past, Lenart said, when there were compliance issues, the DABC gave business owners at least a month — sometimes more — to provide papers and make changes before having their licenses forfeited.

If the agency plans to get tougher on enforcement, she said, it needs to inform businesses, she told the commission. "Send a letter to licensees that gives them clear guidance on how the department plans to interpret the law and give them time to come up to speed.”