Partnership for Alcohol Safety mulls mystery shopper initiative


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With Iowa City officials focusing much of their recent efforts on creating a more vibrant downtown that is not so focused on alcohol, one Iowa City business owner made a suggestion to improve these efforts at the Partnership for Alcohol Safety meeting on Wednesday.

George Etre, the owner of Takanami and Formosa restaurants, suggested that one way to increase the number of businesses passing police compliance checks for serving alcohol to minors could include allowing restaurants to have “practice” compliance checks before police carry out their actual checks.  In Iowa City, failing compliance checks can lead to losing an establishment losing its liquor license.

Etre said an establishment failing a compliance check often comes down to simple human error.

“I’ve found that many times, once someone shows you an ID, you assume they’re 21,” he said, noting that people who are underage often do not attempt to show an underage ID.  “It only takes one person to make an error, and it costs you your license.”

Developer Marc Moen said many of his tenants would also like guidance on how to pass compliance checks.

“Bar owners who are really trying to run a legitimate business aren’t sleeping at night because that license is their livelihood,” he said.

Etre’s suggestion came about from a presentation during the meeting done by Shannon Pagones, education and outreach coordinator at the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, about mystery-shopper programs done in other states to ensure that laws are upheld.

Pagones said that since no mystery-shopper program exists in Iowa, the Alcohol Division has collaborated with Idaho, Oregon, and Vermont to learn more about how those states run their mystery-shopper programs, citing Ohio’s use of Ohio Liquor Law Consulting.

After the presentation, Moen asked if any independent company could conduct mystery-shopper operations, and Etre’s idea was born.

However, a debate ensued when Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine asked why the practice compliance checks had to involve underage patrons, because a failure of compliance forces the police to write a ticket on the spot.

“Why can’t you guys hire your own secret shoppers?” he asked.

Etre said that providing restaurants with as much information as possible regarding IDs would be valuable for making improvements.

Moen commended Etre, saying that in Etre’s restaurants, everyone is carded, regardless of age.

However, Iowa City police Sgt. Vicki Lalla noted that every establishment with a liquor license is checked for its adherence to the rules.

“The bottom line is, if it has a liquor license, it’s being checked …” she said.

Tom Rocklin, the alcohol-panel co-head and the University of Iowa vice president for Student Life, said although he is anxiously awaiting the arrival of more alternatives venues, the student experience has changed for the better in recent years.

“Students are safer than they have been in years,” he said, noting that he would like to see formal discussions regarding the mystery-shopper program come to fruition over the next year.

UI Student Government President Katherine Valde, a first-time meeting attendee, liked the notion of the mystery-shopper program but emphasized the need for further planning to take place before implementation.

In light of the 21-ordinance possibly coming to a vote in the future, the Partnership for Alcohol Safety is still in the process of determining its stance on the issue. 

Bender mulled the idea for an email-based polling system on the divisive issue but no further comments proceeded.

“I think we need to decide what [the group’s] role is as this becomes a front-page topic,” Hargadine said. “I think it’s the biggest issue we’re going to be talking about in the community.”

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