Park City establishments grapple with Utah’s changing liquor laws
Does this sound familiar?
“Come visit us in Park City! Of course there are bars and liquor stores here.”
While many Parkites still have exchanges like that with relatives and friends, the past two decades have seen a marked liberalization of Utah’s alcohol policies and perceptions of them.
And the rate of change has accelerated in the past few years.
Since the fall of the “Zion Curtain” in 2017, the state’s DUI limit has been reduced, the dining club serving license has been discontinued and 5% beer (by volume) has flowed onto grocery store shelves and into taps.
While memberships to bars and trips to Wyoming are no longer required to party like in 1999, local restaurateurs, barkeeps and tourism advocates have had to roll with radical changes on their end that have recently come on a near-annual basis.
Effects of change
Kevin Valaika has run Shabu for 14 years. The past several of those, he said, have been “extremely stressful” when it comes to what Utah’s volatile alcohol policy has meant for operating his Main Street restaurant.
Two years ago, he faced the possibility of losing a large part of his customer base: kids, and the families they’re part of, when Utah ditched dining club licenses, which essentially allowed establishments to operate at once as both a bar and a restaurant.
“This coming week, children are 40% of our business,” Valaika said before the Christmas holiday. “We’re not talking happy meals, these kids are eating Kobe beef steak, these are rich kids.”
Now, because Shabu operates with a restaurant liquor license, children must be seated outside of a 10-foot radius from the bar. Shabu and other businesses that are physically unable to comply with that requirement have received waivers that allow children to be seated inside that radius, but only when no other seating is available. Other establishments underwent costly renovations to make their spaces
As a restaurant, Shabu must also adhere to a strict rule that at least 70% of its sales come from food, which can be a challenging ratio to maintain. Alternatively, Shabu could have opted for a bar license, but it would have had to ban people under 21. It was a choice between two imperfect options, but Valaika said the prospect of losing business from families with minors would be devastating to any Main Street restaurant.
“Of all of our vacationers and second-home owners, I would say 70 percent of them have kids,” he said. “There’s wealthy, retired people that have grandchildren.”
Other Park City establishments have also expressed frustration with the effects of liquor law changes. Ivonne Timar, general manager of Flanagan’s on Main next door to Shabu, for instance, said in an email that she doubts that the state government “truly understands” the impact of its alcohol regulations on Utah’s tourism industry, which is a vital sector of the economy. Flanagan’s downstairs section is now closed to minors, resulting in the loss of more than 100 seats.
“The combination of skyrocketing rents and this new law has made things very difficult on low margin ‘family dining operators,’” Timar said. “We all know the profit is 3 to 4 times greater on alcohol than food.”
Blunting the blow
According to Bill Malone, president and CEO of the Park City Chamber/Bureau, even as Utah’s liquor laws have remained distinct from the rest of the country, they don’t factor as heavily into Park City tourism marketing initiatives as they used to. While the perception that it’s difficult to find a drink in Utah lingers among some, the changing laws don’t have a negative impact on most people’s vacations to Park City.
“For the most part, our guests pretty well navigate their way through any changes once they’re here as they might relate to rules and regulations that apply,” Malone said.
Enough reforms have taken place since the pre-Olympics period that it’s easier to sell vacationers on visiting Utah, Malone said, and there’s enough of a body of knowledge around Park City that visitors know they don’t have to trade nightlife for the convenience of skiing 45 minutes away from an international airport.
“When you do focus groups in New York or L.A. … the only time, in my experience, where the conversation of getting a drink comes up is typically with a younger demographic who has never been here before,” Malone said. “It’s usually other people in the focus group who have been to Park City before dismiss the comment by saying, ‘Nah, you can get a drink.’”
The data backs up Malone’s argument — even in winters without much powder, such as that of the 2017-2018 season, people still flock to Park City because of the offerings off the mountain.
Valaika said that he still encounters some patrons in his restaurant confused by the liquor laws, though. “These people are from around the world, and they come here and they’re like, ‘What? We can’t sit there? There’s an empty table 8 feet away and we can’t sit there.’”
Even as competing Colorado and California take steps like legalizing recreational marijuana, the Chamber/Bureau’s marketing has focused less on convincing people that Park City bars and alcohol-serving restaurants exist and more on the idea that they’re worth the trip.
“I think it’s just a different game than a couple of decades ago when people would position their advertising very simplistically based on, ‘We’ve got more bars in Steamboat than Park City does,” Malone said. “I think that has gone by the wayside and I think the consumers that we go after are more sophisticated today.”
Another encouraging sign for business owners is the historic increase of the legal alcohol content of beer in private grocery stores and on taps, which passed in January and was implemented on Oct. 31. When national macrobrewers like Budweiser and Coors said they would cease production of their 4% alcohol-by-volume brews, the Utah Legislature passed a law increasing the limit to 5% ABV — still lower than the majority of the country, but a crucial increase when it comes to the variety of beer available to customers.
“The … changes are ‘really great’ as (tourists) come to town, they are very happy to see that we are now able to pour more authentic Irish beers like Bass, Smithicks, Harps, etc.,” Timar, the general manager of Irish pub Flanagan’s on Main, wrote in an email.
The decrease of Utah’s DUI limit from 0.08 blood-alcohol content to 0.05, which took place at the beginning of 2019 and made Utah the strictest state in the nation when it comes to drinking and driving, hasn’t had as much of an effect on Park City business as some feared when the law passed. Malone cited the prevalence of public transit and rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft in Park City as potentially having blunted any harm to the local tourism
“It was a lot less angst over that issue than I had originally thought there would be,” Malone said. “When that went into effect, I was thinking that would be a pretty big story out there in a lot of places, and it really wasn’t.”
Recent changes to Utah’s liquor laws
2009: Bars no longer require memberships, sponsors and annual fees for customers to drink there
2017: The “Zion Curtain,” which often took the form of a frosted glass barrier at restaurants, falls
2018: Dining club licenses are discontinued, leaving many businesses to choose between being a 21-and-over bar or a restaurant
2019: DUI blood-alcohol limit reduced to 0.05, lowest in the nation
2019: 5% beer comes to grocery and convenience store shelves and taps
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