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Alcohol partnership eyes bars with 21 exemptions

BY ALISON SULLIVAN | MAY 12, 2011 7:20 AM

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Some businesses with exemptions to the 21-ordinance may be abusing their privilege, business owners told fellow members of the Partnership for Alcohol Safety on Wednesday.

Kelly Bender, a prevention manager from the Mid-Eastern Council on Chemical Abuse, said there was some concern establishments were advertising to those under 21 that they could enter after 10 p.m.

"It seems to be pretty much out there that that's happening," Bender said. "So I'm not revealing any deep dark secret."

To be eligible for an exemption to the 21-ordinance, which bans those under 21 from bars after 10 p.m., the business must prove it makes more than 50 percent of its revenue from food.

But several people at the meeting questioned the bars' accounting tactics.

Leah Cohen, owner of Bo-James, 118 East Washington St., said some establishments might be applying revenue from non-food sources, such as cover charges, to their food totals to meet the ratio and obtain the exemption.

"It's making the 21-ordinance ineffective," she said.

Bender suggested the state Alcoholic Beverage Division increase its focus on teaching bar owners to be more responsible distributors as well as helping promote alcohol sales.

But owners with exceptions said it's only natural to take advantage of it.

"Sure, everybody that has an exemption is trying to capitalize on it," said Terry French, the owner of exempted Sam's Pizza, 441 S. Gilbert St.

But he attributed the restaurant's Wednesday night popularity with underage students to karaoke night.

"If it's a restaurant, it's a restaurant, that's great … but we don't want them serving [alcohol to] people under 21 or allowing people to drink on their premises," Bender said.

Iowa City police have said they've had to increase enforcement at some exempted establishments this year.

Cohen said raising the ratio of food to alcohol sales is one possibility.

"I have no problem losing my exemption," Cohen said. Although Bo-James is exempt, it has had a 21 entry age since before the ordinance's inception.

The committee also discussed rethinking a rule allowing new business owners a six-month exemption in light of the recent change in ownership if the Summit, 10 S. Clinton St.

Numerous members of the committee said for the group's efforts to work, there needed to be a better relationship among all of the bar owners and the city.

But the problem the committee faces deals with a small number of businesses, said George Etre, the owner of Formosa Asian Cuisine and Takanami Restaurant.

"It's frustrating for us who are trying to do the right thing," he said at his first meeting as a member of the partnership.

Etre and Cohen both mirrored concerns on the early drinking times that can jeopardize the image of the city.

Ten p.m. is the new 2 a.m., Etre said.

Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek welcomed the perspective from the business and bar owners, something the committee had been working on expanding.

"The fact that you're bringing information to us is good," he said.


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