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Blame for the Shaw's Tavern mess does not lie with the city

Shaw's Tavern closed last week because the restaurant has not yet been granted a liquor license. Several commentators blamed DC's liquor license regulatory system. But Shaw's could be serving alcohol already if the management had done a little legwork.


Photo by tedeytan on Flickr.

The tavern got into trouble with the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) for allegedly serving alcohol without a license during a charity event, and even altering documents to mislead alcohol suppliers into believing Shaw's had the necessary permission.

Facing this, ABRA refused to provide a license until the ABC Board, which sets policies and rules on contested cases, can weigh in. It held a hearing on August 10th, and has up to 90 days to rule. Not making enough money from food alone, Shaw's closed its doors and laid off its staff.

Megan McArdle and Matthew Yglesias blame the government. Yglesias says that there's plenty of demand for bars and lots of vacant storefronts, but ABRA policies are "a sign to would-be entrepreneurs everywhere that their potential investments are much riskier than a superficial read of market conditions would suggest." McArdle says,

Punishing a restaurant owner for a liquor license violation with an open-ended maybe-we'll-give-you-a-license-maybe-we-won't delay is equivalent to giving someone the death penalty for a parking violation. Moreover, it punishes the neighbors and the employees right along with the owner.
Their arguments, though, ignore management's responsibility for the pickle they're in, and instead push the idea that the city should turn a blind eye to the situation rather than acknowledge any infractions. McArdle, Yglesias, a number of City Paper commenters, and others seem to believe we should simply let bygones be bygones and give Shaw's its license.

We'd like to see Shaw's obtain a liquor license. The building it occupies was vacant for years, and was an eyesore on Florida Avenue. Today, it's a handsome façade on the edge of the Shaw and LeDroit Park neighborhoods. And there's no doubt the restaurant struggled to stay open without a license. But the fact remains that the ownership is solely at fault for the delayed licensing.

To gain insight to the liquor licensing process, we spoke with Matt Ashburn, who owns Capital City Diner in the Trinidad neighborhood. Ashburn has had extensive experience dealing with city agencies to get his restaurant up and running. He's not afraid to speak his mind regarding problems that come from dealing with the city, but has nothing bad to say about ABRA.

Ashburn says they are the most professional, straightforward city agency he has dealt with, and challenged us to find one more customer-friendly. He described the agency as one that's "run like a business," and that the process to obtain a "stipulated" liquor license, which is the temporary license that an establishment can get if there is no community protest, is quite fast and simple.

ABRA employees are available to walk you through the process if you need help, and the 20-page application form (PDF) is only that long because of the helpful, step-by-step instructions embedded in it to make the process as simple as possible. Capital City Diner received its stipulated license by going before the local ANC (5B), requesting a letter of support, and then filing the application. The restaurant was able to legally serve beer after a 3-day turnaround.

Is Ashburn's experience typical or is ABRA's process an impediment? When it comes to fights with neighbors, Phil Lepanto has said ABRA is too reactive instead of proactive, and Natalie Avery argued ABRA needs to work to be more collaborative. But in this case, neighborhood opposition was not an issue.

Shaw's Tavern is located within ANC 2C. The minutes of their April meeting report a unanimous vote to provide a similar letter of support for the tavern.

It's not clear what happened between the April meeting, when the ANC gave their blessing for a stipulated license, and the July 16th "soft launch" that got Shaw's in hot water.

More than 3 months passed with no license, while Capital City Diner got one in just 3 days. What did the management do regarding the license in that 3 months? Why didn't they have a stipulated license as quickly as Capital City Diner did?

Since then, the ABC Board had a hearing on August 10th, with the understanding that a ruling would come down regarding the license within 90 days. In the end, we don't know how the ABC board will rule regarding the restaurant's liquor license.

If we had to hazard a guess, we'd wager that they'll be given a slap on the wrist and a license. All of the hand-wringing we're reading and writing about now could be a small bump on the road when looking back in a few months. But make no mistake, as chef John Cochran told Eater, "All I can tell you is that the alcohol board was making their decision and they had every right to take their time. Shaw's was in the wrong."

Geoff Hatchard lived in DC's Trinidad neighborhood. The opinions and views expressed in Geoff's writing on this blog are his, and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer. 
Jaime Fearer worked in the book industry for over 10 years before pursuing a graduate planning degree, and she is a community planner in Greenbelt, MD. When she first moved to NE DC, she ran stop, blog, and roll. Jaime now lives in Trinidad DC, where she serves on the neighborhood associationís board. 

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Blame for the Shaw's Tavern mess does not lie with the city.

True! But that doesn't mean the city's liquor licensing isn't also a mess - there have been plenty of posts here on GGW to that end as it is.

Likewise, just because the Cap City Diner was able to navigate the process quickly, that doesn't mean the process itself is a good one. Nor does it address the more challenging question that Yglesias, McArdle, and others raise: what is the appropriate role and process for regulation here at all?

by Alex B. on Aug 31, 2011 2:09 pm • linkreport

i agree with you, but i 'm not sure i follow your thoughts to interview cap city diner but not shaw's tavern.

by abbot on Aug 31, 2011 2:17 pm • linkreport

I agree with the points made in this post. I am compelled, however to comment on the overall tone a lot of commentators are making on Shaw's Tavern and the process in general.

If you play by the rules, don't forge licenses, and go through all the appropriate channels, starting a business isn't impossible, nor is it easy (as it should be).

Not only is it necessary to navigate the city's bureaucracy, but to run a business in general! If you can't jump through the hoops like EVERYONE else must, then don't open a restaurant, and especially if you don't have a liquor license and you're a "tavern."

by John M on Aug 31, 2011 2:19 pm • linkreport

Alex B.

The liquor regulation and licensing rules are the way they are because, at least sometime in the past and maybe still today, they serve the actual residents of the city. They may not serve every constituency, but they probably serve a large constituency given the economic incentives to loosen them.

While you're libertarian/20-something position is valid, it's not the only reasonable position. There are a lot of very good reasons to support current, if not enhanced regulations on liquor licensing.

Alcohol consumption is an extremely dangerous and destructive habit. It can be done in moderation and it can be done safely, but it can also destroy individuals, families and neighborhoods the same way any mind altering drug can. If you look at any run down commercial strip in the DC region, you can almost guarantee there's a highly profitable bar or liquor store nearby. If you look at any area with repeated late night crime, there's over consumption of alcohol by large numbers of individuals.

*It is virtually impossible to enforce alcohol consumption laws, or to revoke a liquor license once it's been granted*

If you fix the conditions that lead to that last statement being true, I'll support you in loosening licensing laws.

by EB on Aug 31, 2011 2:31 pm • linkreport

abbot: The management team of Shaw's Tavern has been interviewed by many others (which we linked to throughout this piece), and we wanted to get an outside point of view to check in on the liquor license process.

Ashburn's experiences with DC licensing were well-documented (via his twitter account and the City Paper last year), and he was easy to get in touch with.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Aug 31, 2011 2:32 pm • linkreport

John M,

I'd love to shake your hand! Where is the accountability?!

ABRA and the Department of Health along with DCRA and Business licensing have processes set up that could be more streamlined, however nothing worth having comes easy. The agencies and/or departments I've listed are at least attempting health, welfare, and safety. Business owners must remember the liability associated with activities such as presenting falsified documents and serving alcohol without proper checks and balance systems weighing in.

When owners try to circumvent processes they could put their customers at srisk...

Dianna Reed
Principal-Zoning & Land Development Professional
Land Use by Design®

DC Metro Office: 202.744.7875
TN/SW Virginia/West Virginia: 304.994.2484
Fax: 202.478.1888
Email: landusebydesign@gmail.com

"Creating Compliant Solutions"

by Dianna Reed on Aug 31, 2011 2:37 pm • linkreport

I understand the delay. The board is just following the current laws. I really think the process needs a thorough revamp. I don't really know why full service restaurants a license to serve beer and wine at all. The process should be easier for most places that serve within the establishment. The problem in DC isn't restaurants or bars, its liquor stores.

by Eric on Aug 31, 2011 2:39 pm • linkreport

@EB

I didn't really take a position in my comment, except to note that the peculiarities of either case (whether it's Shaw's Tavern or the Cap City Diner) don't really provide an illustrative window into the permitting and licensing process and regulation.

I was speaking to the logic of the article, not the substance of the regulations.

For the rest of your post, I think it's telling that you mesh a rundown liquor store with a post about a gastropub that needs a liquor license - these are not even close to equivalent cases. Likewise, it's true that alcohol can be destructive in people's lives - but I'd argue that has little to do with restaurants that would like to serve beer and wine with food.

by Alex B. on Aug 31, 2011 2:43 pm • linkreport

There is a difference between a simple delay and effectivelly forcing a business to shut down. Shaw's did mess up, but the punishment doesn't fit the crime here.

by Cassidy on Aug 31, 2011 2:49 pm • linkreport

EB, your argument is in favor of using the regulatory system as a social intervention. Doesn't work, and history tells us so (see: Prohibition. Or ask any social worker how helpful laws are in forcing change in their cases). Alex B.'s question is a good one -- is the level of regulation currently in place the right level? What is good policy here?

by anon on Aug 31, 2011 3:02 pm • linkreport

Agree with Cassidy. The way the authors of this post swing back and forth from one extreme position to the other is dizzying. What's the city supposed to do, nothing??? Well, I mean, sure, the Tavern should've gotten the license. But if the Tavern made one misstep, it's all their fault they got shut down!

by Miles Grant on Aug 31, 2011 3:09 pm • linkreport

I think regulations and a property's zoning should go hand and hand. More specifically, a dense or commercially intensive zone should allow beer and wine by default for full service, sit-down restaurants.

This would, of course, reduce ABRA's income and overall contribution to DC's budget.

by Dianna Reed on Aug 31, 2011 3:15 pm • linkreport

If you really want to see the evils of NIMBYism at work messing up our city and our future- come to the Capitol Hill-Eastern Market -Navy Yard area- there are constant complaints about the new restaurants and liquor licenses being granted- and many of the old people are dead set against any new businesses or any change at all. A lot of it boild down to the ever present parking issue- they all are super duper car-dependent people and the people you see at the meetings are usually not the kind of folks who would deign to take transit or walk or cycle anywhere. these people hem and maw about the new young people coming in disturbing their precious suburbia in the city- and yet they did not seem to care when the 8th street strip was infested with criminals and vagrants. I disagree wholeheartedly with the commentor about the evils of alcohol in a new business like this- the great majority of these "new people" I see on 8th street are very affluent, well dressed, very well behaved, and it has improved the area dramatically. Those who wish to go back to boarded up store fronts just because their free street parking "rights" are threatened should pack up and move to Phoenix, Atlanta, or Houston. They will find plenty of parking in the " city" neighborhoods of these god-forsaken sun -belt car-sewers.

by w on Aug 31, 2011 3:26 pm • linkreport

The ethical question is whether delaying the application of the license is an appropriate punishment reaction to the alleged illegal serving of alcohol. It would seem more fair to just continue the process. If Shaw's is found to have broken the law, then appropriate action can be taken. I assume alcohol licenses can be quickly revoked when the holder is found breaking the law.

This seems a case of guilty until proven innocent. That is not the law in the US.

by Jasper on Aug 31, 2011 3:32 pm • linkreport

I think that forging documents is a very serious issue. It's not a mis-step or mistake, it is intentional, and therefore deserves punishment.

by cd on Aug 31, 2011 3:40 pm • linkreport

Allowing the business to continue the ABRA process where it left off only sends out the message that it is ok to falsify and scheme as long as you become compliant when caught. I agree, seeing the "tavern" go out of business is sad (seeing any business go out of business is sad actually) but we have to hold people accountable.

Shaws should be allowed a temporary beer and wine license while it resubmits to ABRA and goes through the process like other restaurant owners have done.

by Dianna Reed on Aug 31, 2011 3:42 pm • linkreport

the reason that Shaw's stipulated license was not released was because they had not yet obtained a C of O. They are not legally allowed to give anyone a liquor license without one. No one has caught on yet that not only were they operating for those parties without at liquor license they were also operating without a C of O or Basic Business license, which every business of every kind in dc needs. They should be grateful that DCRA is less efficient and didn't notice.

by indc on Aug 31, 2011 3:49 pm • linkreport

You're comparing apples and oranges with these two examples and it isn't just NIMBYs who are bothered by bars and would find the end of regulation a problem. If a bar opens nearby or fails to deal with unruly customers (a problem I had in another city), it creates real community problems.

by Rich on Aug 31, 2011 3:49 pm • linkreport

In DC,

I agree with your comment about the need for licensing and C of O's through DCRA and BBL. The problem may not be that folks aren't doing legwork. The problem is that folks don't understand what legwork is needed.

by Dianna Reed on Aug 31, 2011 3:55 pm • linkreport

Most US jurisdictions have less restrictive alcohol laws than DC, and they have yet to experience social collapse as a result.

If bars had more latitude on where to open, you would see more neighborhood-focused establishments and fewer nightlife mega-districts like 18th Street.

Clustering most bars and nightclubs into a few select areas exacerbates the resulting social problems, and inconveniences everyone. Those who live farther away from a "nightlife district" have to travel for miles to go to a decent bar, and those who live closer have to deal with large amounts of disorder, crime, noise, etc.

by Phil on Aug 31, 2011 4:15 pm • linkreport

So Phil, No problem with forging a liquor license to get alcohol delivered?

by indc on Aug 31, 2011 4:20 pm • linkreport

I've edited indc's last comment because parts of it violated our comment policy. Please remember that blog posts are not meant to be the final word on a topic, but a start of a conversation; we welcome people bringing up other information, and it's more effective to do so without wrapping it in attacks on other commenters or contributors.

by David Alpert on Aug 31, 2011 4:20 pm • linkreport

I don't really know enough about DC's byzantine liquor regulation system to assess these accusations of forgery. In any case, forgery is a felony crime that carries serious penalties, and people shouldn't throw around accusations of it so liberally.

by Phil on Aug 31, 2011 4:33 pm • linkreport

I'm done after this. getting too worked up. But in their abc hearing immediately after they were found to be serving alcohol the shaws owners did not deny forging the documents after the liquor companies presented a 'liquor license' that was provided to them by Shaws.

by indc on Aug 31, 2011 4:39 pm • linkreport

I agree with City Tavern's owner. Do your homework ... and better yet ... retain a good lawyer who is street-smart with PR (!) and you will find nothing but cooperation. Sounds like Shaw was a bit immature, premature and lacked come tenacity. Too bad.

by Randy Alan Weiss on Sep 1, 2011 10:27 am • linkreport

If you dont know much about DC's liquor regulation system, how do you know that its "byzantine"?

by Question for Phil on Sep 1, 2011 10:30 am • linkreport

First off, no documents were ever forged in any way shape or form. Second off, several alcohol distributors knew we did not have possession of a physical license, and they had been sending their sales representatives into the tavern for months giving away free beer and wine samples and hosting tastings for all of the employees. We did not break the law in any way shape or form. The lawyer we hired on recommendations from within the industry said I needed to go. So I left! The lawyer said to save your license, dont fight, apologize and beg for forgiveness. Thats what the owners have done. Anything other than these facts is a complete fabrication.

by Steven May on Sep 1, 2011 11:22 am • linkreport

sounds like steven may got "thrown under a bus ..."

by Randy Alan Weiss on Sep 1, 2011 12:08 pm • linkreport

@Steve May: Sorry, I'm more inclined to believe whatever comes out of your mouth is fabrication. You lost all credibility after the stunt you pulled in Bloomingdale, blaming the community for your failure to obtain a license when you hadn't even filed for one. Blaming the community for your failure to failure to open in July when you are still pulling construction permits in August. (pivs.dcra.gov)

Care to post the documents you gave to your vendors? Or are you going to stall and post nothing in the same way you never posted your abra application for the firehouse after telling the community you would.

by Mike on Sep 1, 2011 5:12 pm • linkreport

Geoff and Jaime,

Very good post. Fairly written with well balanced views. This is the kind if reporting which gains the respect of sides to an issue.

by Lance on Sep 1, 2011 7:28 pm • linkreport

*of all sides to an issue.

Sorry I'm on my phone...

by Lance on Sep 1, 2011 7:29 pm • linkreport

I am not sure I would call expressing my frustration with a neighborhood that is against any form of development a stunt. Believe what you want. There is no motive with Shaw's, what do you think, we risked a million dollar investment so we could give away $20,000.00 in food and alcohol to two charity events.

by Steven May on Sep 1, 2011 8:40 pm • linkreport

up to 90 days after a hearing? To do what? These time periods seem to reflect a time when it was necessary to get documents by snail mail or paper had to move from desk to desk so turnaround was built in . 5 days for snail mail 2 days for internal mail. Email, and faxes have negated those time requirements . So yes someone should be looking at and answering the question of why 90 days,what is being done during those days?

by Anonymous on Sep 2, 2011 10:44 am • linkreport

Don't put the blame on the ABC board
its becoming obvious the owner is a complete idiot and has no business running a restaurant. the food portions were a joke,
the service was shoddy, the atmosphere and layout make no sense whatsoever
i am all about mood lightning but come on! you couldn't see the person next to you. the only light i had was from the Ipad the waitress carried around

the neighborhood is so desperate for a nice local hangout they will support just about anything. Hopefully the owner will sell to a group that knows how to run a restaurant.

by Michael on Sep 2, 2011 1:00 pm • linkreport

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