Originally created 02/28/05

Alcohol sales code to stay in place

Five restaurants in Columbia County include the word "bar" in their name, but that doesn't mean bars are allowed in the county.

An ordinance adopted in 1991 states that any establishment serving alcohol must get at least 51 percent of its total sales from food.

It's a requirement that just a few months ago caused a stir for one restaurant, Finish Line Cafe on South Belair Road. And it's an ordinance that some county commissioners say they don't want changed anytime soon.

"I think the commission is pretty unified on this," Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross said. "We don't want the prototype beer joints where you just go and drink until you can't drink anymore and are out on the highway."

The issue with Finish Line Cafe occurred in December, when county officials said an audit of the restaurant showed it was missing the 51 percent food sales requirement.

The commission decided to allow the business to have its license renewed for this year because of what some commissioners said was an ambiguity in the ordinance, which they said doesn't give a firm definition of the term "total sales," which could be interpreted to include vending machine sales.

Commissioners have voted to look into ways to amend the alcohol/food sales ordinance and remove any ambiguity, but they say they still stand by its intent.

At the beginning of this year, enforcement of alcohol licenses officially fell under a new department. Previously, the county's planning and zoning department enforced the rules, but a code compliance department was created in January.

Jim Leiper, the county engineer who oversees the new department, said it will operate much as planning and zoning did, adding that the responsibilities were shifted simply to consolidate similar duties into one department.

"The organization was to put all code enforcement activities under one department because there weren't really clear-cut lines for who was responsible for what," he said.

Jeff Browning, the county's planning and zoning director, said that since the Finish Line incident occurred, he knows of only two other establishments - A.J.'s and Backyard Tavern, both on South Belair Road - that likely are not meeting the county's food sales requirement.

In those cases, though, he said, they were grandfathered in before the 1991 ordinance and are therefore exempt. He said Finish Line is no longer exempt because a new business license had been requested by new ownership since the ordinance went into effect.

Some have speculated the county's 1991 ordinance was passed in line with the allowance of liquor being sold by the drink, thereby easing the minds of those concerned that liquor sales might lead to bars in the county.

Chuck Large, the owner of Sidetrack Bar and Grill on Washington Road in Martinez, said he has no problem meeting the county's food sales requirement, but he still doesn't think it's fair.

"It still doesn't make any sense to me, because what it makes me do is it creates more work for me to track the alcohol sales," he said.

"I have a full menu, and I can't help it if somebody eats a burger or shrimp for $7.99 and two Crowns for $12."

Mr. Large said he thinks the ordinance could be revisited to still require that restaurants offer a full menu and have a functional kitchen but that the 51 percent requirement should be dropped.

"And if it's 60-40 (percent) in alcohol (sales), so be it. Who cares? It's still a restaurant," he said.

In Richmond County, bars are allowed but establishments must state whether they will operate as a bar or restaurant before receiving a license. If they receive a bar license, there are certain distance requirements from schools and churches, and no one younger than 21 can enter.

If they receive a license as a restaurant, they must have food sales of at least 50 percent, said Rob Sherman, the county's license and inspections director.

Currently, Mr. Sherman said, his department is examining Alex's Restaurant and Sports Bar on Wrightsboro Road, which is classified as a restaurant. He said it has had a problem in the past meeting the 50 percent food sales requirement.

If a restaurant only slightly misses the food sales requirement, he said his department works with the owners to bring up the percentage.

However, when a restaurant misses the requirement by a lot, he typically asks it to reapply as a bar.

In Columbia County, Mr. Cross said he doesn't believe most residents want bars.

"All of this is trying to look after the morality issue and what the consequence could be if we go the other way," he said. "And I don't think people want to take that chance."

Reach Preston Sparks at 868-1222, ext. 115 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.

An audit showed Finish Line Cafe in Martinez did not meet the sales rule, but the county let the business retain its license because of ambiguity in the ordinance.

The Rules

Columbia County: Since 1991, all establishments serving alcohol must get at least 51 percent of sales from food.

Richmond County: Establishments must state whether they will operate as bars or restaurants before receiving a license. Those with restaurant licenses must get at least half their sales from food. Those with bar licenses must keep certain distances from schools and churches and maintain age limits.


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