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Punch Drunk

This Week: Enforce This

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The other Sunday an alert was put out through the bartender pipeline, which is a floating system of twittering and texting, that warned of two undercover agents from the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control who were going around to bars, attempting to befriend bartenders and then offering to buy the barkeeps shots. Which, if accepted and consumed, would have given the undercover officers reason to nail a bartender and the bar for violating ABC law.

I'm not sure if this technically constitutes entrapment, but I'm sure that if it's true, it technically constitutes a real asshole move on the part of ABC. (An ABC spokeswoman denies this ever happened, and another says agents were not working that day: “This is not a practice at ABC nor one we would participate in,” she says.)

Whatever ABC claims, the tactics wouldn't surprise me. In addition to bars giving the state and a corrupt system thousands of dollars a week for our liquor, we all fight strenuously to comply with the ABC's antiquated laws, if only so it can bestow upon us the privilege of being able to operate a restaurant in the commonwealth of Virginia.

I understand that ABC agents are out there to curb underage drinking, promote responsible drinking and help make the city a safer place by putting restrictions on the liquor distribution system, and I'm totally OK with that. What pisses me and a lot of other people off is when the board starts bullying restaurants over asinine defaults and misinterpretations of laws that were never fully explained to us in the first place. Like when the board shuts down a restaurant for a week because even through its most honest efforts it failed to meet the yearly end-bar requirements, which are basically the numbers we turn into the state that show our alcohol-to-food sales ratio.

Restaurant owners aren't the ones who take the brunt of the hit, although ABC fines are especially steep and from what I can tell, completely vague and case-by-case. The real victim is that mother of three busting her ass working the lunch shift every day so she can earn $300 or $400 a week, who suddenly has no shifts.

If there's a way for the state to suck more money out of restaurants and inadvertently suck money out of industry peons' pockets, they'll find it.

Um hey, you need a dance-hall permit to operate this club. So, uh, just write a check for $500 and we'll put a small piece of paper in your window that will allow people to, uh, dance.

Listen, your food-sold to alcohol-sold ratio was a bit out of whack this year, so a check for $5,000 will ensure that we won't revisit this issue until next year, during which time you can just write us another check. Or we can just shut you down. Your choice.

Laws are laws and my bitching will do nothing to change them, but I hope more people's eyes will open to the shroud of shadiness under which our state's so-called beverage control operates.

Word of the Father's Day ruse worked well for the ABC. Bartenders across town were intimidated and running their ships tighter than ever. It also worked to piss some of us off, and it helped to lose our already scant trust in Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Although I personally had no trust in them in the first place.

Richmond bartender Jack Lauterback consumes and slings drinks at a number of local establishments. He also writes a surly blog at http://jackgoesforth.blogspot.com. Find him on Twitter @jackgoesforth. Have a question or comment for the bartender? E-mail: bartender@styleweekly.com.

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