Updated at 3:30 p.m. – Local restaurant owners are raising money for a website and marketing campaign aimed at ending Montgomery County’s monopoly on alcohol distribution and the retail sale of liquor.
About 30 restaurant owners, managers, residents and local business leaders met last Thursday at Mussel Bar and Grille in Bethesda, according to Frank Shull, the chief operating officer of the RW Restaurant Group that owns the Woodmont Avenue restaurant as well as five others in Montgomery County.
The result of the meeting was an online crowdfunding effort backers hope can raise $25,000 toward a “grassroots campaign that consists of education, website development and materials” geared at fighting the county’s unique alcohol control model.
Brian Vasile, owner of Brickside Food & Drink on Cordell Avenue, and Alan Pohoryles, owner of Tommy Joe’s on Montgomery Lane, have each contributed $500 toward the campaign.
The effort, titled “Let’s End the Monopoly!” comes as some state delegates have proposed putting a referendum on the November 2016 ballot that would ask voters if private alcohol distributors should be allowed to compete against the county’s Department of Liquor Control (DLC). Comptroller Peter Franchot, a frequent critic of the DLC, has also said he intends to introduce a bill aimed at the same goal.
County Executive Ike Leggett and eight of nine members of the County Council have argued against the idea of opening up the DLC to private competition, particularly because it could mean the county loses part or all of the roughly $30 million a year in profit it makes in selling alcohol to restaurants and beer and wine retail stores.
County officials have proposed an alternative bill that would privatize the distribution of special order craft beers and fine wines.
But Vasile said the issue isn't just special order products.
"From the wholesale and distribution side [the DLC] struggles and they don't do a very good job, whether they run out of popular products like Captain Morgan, Grey Goose and Fireball or run out of Guinness on St. Patrick's Day," Vasile said. "If the government's going to have their hands in the alcohol business, let's have some competition and if they can do it better than anyone else, they'll survive."
While some restaurant and beer and wine store owners have openly complained about the DLC’s service—especially during an ad hoc council committee’s examination of the department earlier this year—the new campaign marks one of the first times restaurant owners have been so emphatic in their disapproval of the system.
“A lot of people have been scared to speak out because the DLC is the one bringing us our alcohol,” said John McManus, owner of the Barking Dog in Bethesda. “I’m not scared. My personal belief is [DLC employees] are government agents. These people work for us, the taxpayers. I have never gotten such [bad] service. I might as well be in some third-world country, no disrespect against a third-world country.”
Hanging from beer taps at the bar in Barking Dog are signs that read “Let the People Vote! End the Monopoly!”
Restaurant owners have complained about late deliveries and incomplete deliveries, especially when it comes to special order products such as craft beers and rare wines. McManus said he’s also run into problems with the DLC’s billing system, though he said recent improvements the department has made seem to have worked.
All alcohol-related law changes for Montgomery County must be passed in Annapolis and the 2016 legislative session begins Jan. 13. Vasile said he hopes the campaign is up and running by the end of January.
"We just want to educate people," Vasile said. "The other side has resources. I think we have the manpower, but we need to get a little more organized just to educate people on exactly what is going on and what we're trying to do. There's a misconception out there that we're trying to get rid of the DLC so rich people can get a $300 bottle of wine. That's their rhetoric. That's not the truth."