"Basically, we can do whatever we want."--William Schrader, Agent In Charge, Seattle Enforcement Division, Washington State Liquor Control Board, during a public meeting at city hall.
On September 21 of last year, Mike Apgar, president of the Speakeasy Cafe, wrote a letter to the Washington State Liquor Control Board asking for permission to host music shows for people both over and under 21.
Apgar's letter made a thoughtful argument for a system that works well throughout Europe and in many states, in which all people are allowed into a club but only people of drinking age are allowed to drink. Apgar pleaded with the board to reconsider the notion that music, alcohol, and people of all ages cannot mix. "No one can deny the sometimes powerful and compelling poetry of independent musicians with a message for people," he wrote, "regardless of their age."
The letter carried a sense of urgency. Apgar explained that the Speakeasy's cafe profits had plummeted by 50 percent since a liquor agent informed cafe management last spring that all-ages music nights were not an option. Apgar and his business partners were facing a major choice. The Internet service end of their business was doing great, but the cafe was bleeding money, and they needed to act swiftly.
Apgar didn't hear back from the Liquor Board for three months. He was told that the board would not allow all ages at a music show where alcohol was served. None of the passionate arguments he made in his original letter were acknowledged. "They still haven't responded to us," Apgar said last week. "I was hoping, idealistically I suppose, to begin a dialogue with that letter."
Instead he has run into a wall of bureaucrats who do, eventually, tell him how things must be, but don't seem interested in explaining why. "We're not reporting to Mom and Dad here," says Apgar. "When your mom says you can't do something, she doesn't need to give you a reason, because she's your mom and mother knows best. I'm not convinced the Liquor Board does know best."In just a few years, the Speakeasy Cafe and Information Trading Post has become a Belltown institution, one of the few private spaces in Seattle where you can find a businessman in a suit and a disabled homeless woman in rags hanging out comfortably in the same room. Mike Apgar, his wife Gretchen, and their business partners employ about 40 people, half of them in their growing network business, the other half in the cafe, a spacious former warehouse on Second Avenue featuring Internet access, organic coffee, art shows, poetry readings, experimental theater, political fund-raisers, and musical performances.
For more than two years the Apgars operated under the assumption--verified by a phone call to Olympia--that they had approval to host live music shows to mixed crowds. They didn't experience any problems with underage drinking during that time. They received just one ticket from the Liquor Board ($100 for an unregistered keg), and no written warnings.
When they did hear from the board it was on issues so old that they had almost forgotten about them. It took the board over a year to approve their request for piano music after nine p.m., and the days were listed wrong. For people who earn their money in the super-fast world of electronic information, such delays are baffling. "We need to make choices at the speed of business," says Mike Apgar. "Business doesn't move at that kind of pace. It can't."
Last spring a liquor agent came into the Speakeasy, and although no minors were found consuming alcohol, the agent forced the managers to kick everyone out. The next day, the cafe hired a door person to check IDs, and business began to drop.
Later, a Liquor Board agent reported that on August 17, the cafe was the scene of "entertainment beyond background music": piano, instruments, and (gasp!) people singing. The board requested an explanation of these "added activities." But Gretchen Apgar maintains that the cafe wasn't even open on August 17. Besides, she says, "I didn't realize it mattered whether people were singing or not. Why should it?"
Liquor Board Public Information Officer Tricia Currier emphasizes, "Our main objective is to keep liquor out of the hands of minors." She explains that disallowing minors in music clubs is "just part of the law, and that's what we have to follow. I'm not sure at this time what our reasoning is."Some Liquor Board critics will tell you that the agency's reasoning is pretty much arbitrary, more grounded in personal vendettas than in law.
For years now, Chris Clifford, the owner of Jersey's All-American Sports Bar, has been doing battle with Agent In Charge William Schrader and Senior Agent Timothy Minnich of the Seattle Liquor Enforcement Division. Last year Clifford filed a harassment suit against Schrader and his agents. Now he claims the agents are trying to run him out of business, for disobeying an unconstitutional law that the Liquor Board doesn't even have jurisdiction over in the first place.
Schrader has admitted on the record that he does not like Clifford, and that he has told his agents, his superiors, and even his wife as much. When asked during a hearing if an agent in the Seattle office might retaliate against a person based on his dislikes, Schrader replied, "It depends on the agent."
Two years ago, Clifford attempted to upgrade from a beer-and-wine-only license to a license for spirits. After Schrader and Minnich recommended to the board that Clifford's application be turned down, Clifford, a persuasive lobbyist who has long been a force in state politics, petitioned the board in Olympia and won. At the hearing he told the board that he expected retaliation for standing up to the Seattle agents. "I knew they were going to come and get me," he says.
They did. After seven years without a ticket from the Liquor Board, Clifford received eight tickets over six months, including four tickets for violations the board had never enforced before. He was nailed for such egregious offenses as having a foosball table in the dining room; advertising without writing the full name of his business on the ad, and hosting nights of "unauthorized added activities," also known as dance music.
Clifford says he stopped receiving tickets soon after filing his harassment suit in Superior Court.
When Clifford tried to get approval for music and dance nights at the 700 Club, the lounge upstairs from Jersey's, Schrader refused to forward his request. Clifford decided to hold the dance nights anyhow.
Clifford argues that the Liquor Board has no right to decide what types of music will be allowed and what types will not. For one thing, he says, state law leaves that issue up to cities, not the Liquor Board, to determine. More importantly, any law that allows government to determine what type of music is permissible is an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech.
Clifford recalls that during one hearing, three different agents gave three different explanations of how to distinguish musical entertainment (which requires approval) from background music (which doesn't). One agent said musical entertainment was an event where people paid for admission; the second said it was a show that was really loud; and the third said it was something people enjoyed."Schrader didn't forward my request [to hold dance nights] because he doesn't like me," charges Clifford. "That's about as arbitrary as you get."
Clifford isn't the only club owner in Seattle complaining of personal vendettas. Stephan Mollmann applied for a liquor license last August for a new bar he is trying to open at 2020 East Madison, called the Twilight Exit. He didn't hear back from the board until November 9, after he had completely remodeled the building. His application was rejected because "the area... has a history of drug and crime problems."
Mollmann responded that the board had just granted a Class H license to the Mexican restaurant El Gallito, less than 200 feet away from his building. It seemed to Mollmann that the board was narrowly defining the area of crime and drug problems as the block owned by his landlord, Dean Falls. Falls, like Clifford, has stood up to the Liquor Board many times in the past.
Mollmann's business is just up the street from Oscar's II, a restaurant and night club owned by Barbara and Oscar McCoy. The McCoys lost their liquor license after a controversial undercover drug sting by the Seattle Police Department, which is currently being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice. The McCoys hope to receive a public hearing before the Liquor Board soon. But that's a different story, one the Liquor Board has probably been wishing would go away ever since they first paralyzed the business by overruling a state judge and taking the McCoys' liquor license away.