Undercover agents no longer will issue citations to restaurants that serve drinks to customers before they order food, apparently signaling that Utah's liquor-control bosses have had a change of heart.
The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control had created an uproar in the dining and tourism industries in recent weeks after The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the agency and its compliance officers were warning eateries and their owners that employees were violating Utah law if they served alcohol to diners as they perused menus or before they were seated at tables, even with reservations.
To back up the effort, authorities issued nine citations in December alone to eateries for this type of violation after writing up only one restaurant in the prior year. Owners said they were surprised by the new enforcement effort and worried about its impacts on tourism, and their industry association complained that a compliance standard that had been unchallenged for years was suddenly changed.
But on Tuesday, just days before tens of thousands of out-of-state visitors descend on the state for the opening of the Sundance Film Festival and later the Outdoor Retailers Winter Market trade show, Utah's liquor cops are backing off.
Lt. Troy Marx of the State Bureau of Investigation, whose agency conducts the undercover stings, said officers will not be citing restaurants if they serve diners a drink before ordering food, so long as customers eventually order.
"We won't be citing a restaurant because people are drinking something while looking at a menu," he said, but "We'll be looking to make sure people order."
The violations had carried fines of $500 to $3,000 and license suspensions from five to 30 days.
He declined to reveal who from the DABC had directed the change in enforcement or what exactly prompted it. The agency's new director, Salvador Petilos, has rejected repeated requests for an interview since the jump in citations issued from the undercover stings was first reported.
His new compliance director, Nina McDermott, whose interpretation of a 44-year-old law apparently set off the initial enforcement flurry when she issued the memo in December, also has declined comment. In her directive, she told trainers who instruct servers on alcohol laws: "I have heard from quite a few licensees [restaurants] that a patron may order one drink while reviewing the menu but no second drink will be served without an order of food. The law does not allow for a one drink exception."
The law states: "A full-service restaurant may not sell, offer for sale, or furnish an alcoholic product except in connection with an order for food prepared, sold and furnished at the licensed premises."
Although state sting teams won't be using the stricter standard, local police and sheriff's departments also are tasked with enforcing liquor laws, and it's unclear whether the DABC has taken steps to inform them of any easing of the December no-food-before-booze directive.
McDermott's interpretation of the decades-old law was "silly and misguided," according to Kenneth Wynn, who retired in 2007 after serving 30 years as DABC director.
Wynn said that for many years the commission that oversees the DABC and sets policy had determined that diners could be served alcoholic beverages before placing orders, as long as they indicated they were going to eat.
The food-drink statute, passed in 1969, was enacted to prevent restaurants from becoming bars, where patrons may imbibe without ordering food, said Peter Billings, an attorney and former commission chairman, who served on the liquor board from 1977 to 1981.
"In restaurants, diners had to indicate an intent to eat, they had to tell the waiter they would be ordering food," he said. "There was never a problem with this policy, and it seems to me that problems are now being created when there were none."
Although liquor legislation has undergone major changes through the years, the language requiring a food order has remained the same.