Owners of Moab’s historic Woody’s Tavern are desperate to save their bar. DABS should provide a service to help them, Robert Gehrke writes.

When Utah’s state liquor agency changed its name from “control” to “service,” Utahns might have expected that regulators might want to help keep businesses open, not shut them down.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Owners of Woody's Tavern, a historic bar on Moab's main street, pictured Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, are fighting to stave off closure that owners say would be inevitable if the state takes away their liquor license later this month.

Long before Moab was the bustling, congested redrock tourist haven it is today, Woody’s Tavern sat where Mill Creek crosses State Road 191, the main thoroughfare through town.

It’s known as a kind of cozy neighborhood beer bar where for more than six decades, locals and visitors could raise a glass and maybe catch some live music.

When co-owner Shari Beck and her partners bought the bar in 1991, a state regulator told her that owning a bar was a man’s business and she should stay home and make babies, Beck told me.

When Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis came to town to shoot “Thelma And Louise,” Woody’s was the first place they came, Beck said. Over the years actors, athletes and celebrities have come out to Woody’s, but Beck says, “It’s the little guy. They’re our people. Working-class people, it’s a working-class bar.”

Now, however, state regulators are poised to strip it of its liquor license and essentially force it out of business over a technicality — which is hard to fathom, unless you’ve followed the arcane and arbitrary liquor policy in this state.

It started during the summer, when the pumps that move waste from the bar’s sewer system to the city line failed — as you might imagine, a disgusting problem. Obviously, the bar had to close to comply with health code, and did so on July 3.

Beck said she thought the work could be done by July 12th, but then the air conditioning failed, leaving them with leaking sewage and 106-degree heat.

Parts for both the pumps and the air conditioning were hard to come by, thanks to supply chain issues, and finally, on July 15, Woody’s was ready to re-open.

But therein lies the problem.

Because a few months earlier, undercover agents had snapped a picture of an off-duty employee cleaning up a couple bottles and glasses and accused the employee of drinking on duty. The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services wanted to force Woody’s to close temporarily over the violation and instead of fighting it, Beck suggested the time they were closed to fix the sewer and air conditioning might count.

On July 13, her attorney sent regulators a picture of a poster saying they were closed from July 3-15. And that’s where things got worse, because Utah law requires a bar to notify the state seven days in advance if the establishment is closing for more than 10 days.

Even if the emailed poster could be considered notice, it came 10 days after Woody’s had been closed.

“What kind of idiot incriminates herself?” Beck asks. “Murphy’s law was written for us, seriously. I didn’t think about it. I wasn’t trying to hide anything. … Do you really think I’d really give up 32 years of my life and my tavern?”

Under the law, the punishment for failing to notify the state is automatic forfeiture of the business’s liquor license. If the state follows through, Woody’s would have to reapply and wait in line behind other establishments — currently, eight are in the queue — some of which have already been waiting for more than a year.

It would, for all practical purposes, drive the iconic Moab institution out of business.

“I’m scared to death, I’m not going to lie to you,” Beck said. “I’m scared. It’s just, they can take your license for this? Your whole life is destroyed by this?”

Now if you read those last few paragraphs and thought, “That doesn’t make a darn bit of sense” — you are absolutely right.

And Woody’s would not be the first. Last month, Rayna Olsen, the owner of Ogden’s Sandtrap Cafe, pleaded for some leniency from the liquor commission after a small kitchen fire left the building unable to meet code requirements.

“For a business to be gone because of a small kitchen fire, is heart-wrenching,” Olsen said, fighting tears.

The commission voted 6-1 to revoke the Sandtrap’s license.

Both episodes show how rigid and illogical Utah’s liquor laws remain, from the ticky-tack “gotcha” enforcement to the arbitrary 10-day cut-off, it’s hard to see who might have been harmed or how the law furthers state interests.

Typically, we expect the punishment to be commensurate with the violation, but that logic doesn’t apply when alcohol is involved.

Utah is supposed to be a business-friendly state, but that’s clearly not the case if you run a bar or a restaurant and have to operate every day knowing that the heavy hand of the liquor department could put you out of business for the most minor of infractions.

Michelle Schmitt, a spokeswoman for the department, said that, because the issue is the subject of an ongoing legal matter, the department could not comment beyond noting that state law requires licensees to request temporary closures when necessary.

The Becks are trying to rally support and fight the license forfeiture when it goes before the state liquor commission on Nov. 29. They are arguing they couldn’t legally open with an inoperable sewer system and are urging supporters to contact the governor, the head of the state liquor department and anyone else who might be able to help.

If that doesn’t work, Beck said, Woody’s will likely have to close and Moab will lose another of its institutions.

“I’ve watched everything being taken away from the local people,” Beck said. “Everything.”

Earlier this year, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control went through a little rebranding, changing its name to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services — DABS — believing the focus on service aligned with the department’s mission.

It works because the mission still seems to be all about control, but whereas the BS used to just be about how businesses were treated, now the BS is right there in the name.

Correction, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 10:07 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Geena Davis’ name and that the bar closed July 3, rather than the 2nd.