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.
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."
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