Escafé owner Todd Howard knew he was in trouble with the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which requires at least 45 percent of his sales be in food. Unfortunately for Howard, Escafé is popular in Charlottesville as a bar, and last week he learned the penalty: For 15 days, he can’t sell cocktails, and he has to pay the ABC a $1,000 fine.
It could have been worse.
Originally he was looking at a 60-day suspension that was reduced to a still-devastating 30-day suspension if he paid a $2,500 fine. Howard appealed to the ABC Board in January and told it the impact such a penalty would have on his business.
The board considers statements from the licensee about why he disagrees with the initial decision, and when determining penalties, takes into account the licensee’s history, as well as penalty guidelines, says ABC spokesperson Kathleen Shaw in an e-mail.
Howard calls the board’s decision “quite generous, quite thoughtful.”
Escafé’s predicament is an example of how Virginia grapples in the 21st century with Prohibition-era regulations that don’t allow bars. “Obviously there are some flaws in the code,” says Howard. “Reform is necessary for two reasons.”
Since Virginia last amended its food/alcohol ratio in 1980, there are a lot more restaurants and choices, and Charlottesville is a very competitive market, says Howard. “It’s hard to make that ratio,” he says, with so many places selling food.
And for those who fear the presence of bars in the commonwealth, says Howard, “The news is that we already have them based on the choice of the public, and I think that’s appropriate.” He objects to the definition of a bar that’s from the temperance era. “We’re not a roadhouse. We’re a very clean operation. And you can’t justify calling a bar a nuisance just because it doesn’t sell enough food.”
A bill in the General Assembly attempts to reduce the food/alcohol ratio to 25 percent of sales. That bill, HB219, made it past its first hurdle, the subcommittee, before the General Laws committee continued it to 2017 on February 11.
When customers at Escafé have asked why they can’t get a cocktail during the ban, Howard explains Virginia’s food-alcohol ratio, and he says they respond, “In 2016? Really?”
Howard can still sell wine and beer, and he hopes customers will be in the mood for bubbly over the Valentine’s Day weekend. Escafé will be serving mixed drinks again February 23.