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On the eve of one of the year's biggest gatherings of out-of-state visitors, restaurant owners in Utah are learning the hard way that it's illegal for diners to sip an alcoholic beverage while deciding what to order from the menu.

Compliance officers and the state's liquor-control agency say they are warning owners that their employees are in violation of Utah law if they serve alcohol before diners actually request food. To back up the effort, authorities in undercover stings have issued citations to eateries for this type of violation, which in the past was rarely enforced.

In December alone, nine restaurants paid fines, compared with five who were cited during the 11 previous months and with only one the year before. None of the restaurants had a history of previous violations.

The violation carries a liquor license suspension of five to 30 days or fines from $500 to $3,000.

The stricter enforcement comes just before the opening of the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 17. Undercover officers will be patrolling restaurants that serve many of the tens of thousands of people from Utah and worldwide who attend the 11-day event, which brings in nearly $70 million to the state's economy. Now, when restaurants are crowded, diners waiting for tables will have to forgo an alcoholic beverage, including people who have made reservations, and customers who are seated may not have a beverage until they place an order for food.

"This will hurt tourism," said Joe Fraser, co-owner of seven 'Bout Time Pub & Grub restaurants and bars in the state. "Utah already has a stigma that it's difficult to get a drink, and now there's one more hurdle people will have to face."

A spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control says the enforcement effort is a reaction to restaurants becoming lax in their procedures, but those associated with dining establishments in the state contend there's been shift toward a stricter interpretation of the law, evidenced by recent DABC warnings to all restaurant owners.

"There's absolutely been a change in policy — a huge change," said attorney Rick Golden, who worked at the DABC from 1977 to 1988 and has since represented clients before the board that oversees the agency's operations.

In the past, compliance officers told restaurant servers they needed evidence that diners intended to order food before serving them an alcoholic beverage, said Golden. This could include a query such as, "Are you intending to dine with us tonight?"

While having a drink, patrons also were allowed to study the menu before deciding what to order, he contends.

Speaking Tuesday on behalf of the DABC, which since the fall has been under the direction of Salvador Petilos, who took over after a series of critical legislative audits led to departure of several top agency officials, spokeswoman Vickie Ashby denied there had been any broad change of policy. She referred to a statute which states "restaurant licensee 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."

Ashby added that because some restaurants were not following the law, the DABC issued a reminder within the body of a holiday newsletter. Under the title, "Warning!" it said in bold print that to avoid penalties "the best practice would be to require that the food order be placed prior to service of the alcoholic beverage."

New DABC compliance director Nina McDermott was even more direct in a December memo to 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."

Both McDermott and director Petilos referred questions to Ashby.

Lt. Troy Marx of the State Bureau of Investigation, whose agency conducts the undercover stings, said the rise in citations could be the result of stepped-up enforcement efforts mandated by the Legislature. He added that the majority of recent violations occurred after officers told servers they wanted only an alcoholic beverage — without any food.

"The majority of restaurants we visit are complying with the law," he said. "There are more violations only because there are more officers visiting restaurants."

Last June, lawmakers increased funding for four additional liquor enforcement officers (for a total of 19 sting team members), while also addressing a chronic shortage of restaurant liquor licences by adding 90 to the mix. The money for the additional enforcement comes from a 10 percent increase on fees businesses pay for liquor licenses.

At the time, lawmakers said the beefed up enforcement was necessary, citing the number of citations issued to restaurants for liquor violations.

But Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said 41 violations in the previous 18-month period were miniscule, given how many meals that restaurants serve. Regardless of why certain aspects of the state's liquor law are now being enforced, she thinks restaurant owners deserve a more clear explanation of why there's been a change.

Sine said restaurants serving alcoholic beverages to diners while they study menus "has been the standard. Call it lax, call it overlooking the law, but what's happening is the state is enhancing its enforcement procedures. People need to know what's been altered."