Those hoping to improve Montgomery County’s bar scene have held up the food-to-alcohol ratio as the prime example of suburban-oriented regulation holding the county back.
Restaurants in Montgomery County must sell at least as much food as alcohol per month. The much talked about 50-50 ratio will likely be one focus of recommendations from the County Executive-appointed Nighttime Economy Task Force when it presents its findings later this month.
But would changing the ratio, which supposedly dates back to the end of Prohibition, truly help Bethesda or Silver Spring achieve the level of late-night activity of hotspots in D.C. or Arlington?
Restaurant owners in Arlington (and elsewhere in Virginia) have complained about their 45 percent food to 55 percent alcohol ratio requirement for years. In 2009, 12 Virginia restaurant owners participated in a two-year pilot program that ditched the ratio system and allowed licensees to sell $350 of food per one gallon of liquor bought from the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Many have suggested the ratio means there aren’t any true bars in Bethesda. Many have complained Virginia’s ratio has the same effect. But places such as Clarendon have a wealth of drinking establishments and live music venues that Montgomery County is trying to emulate.
The Task Force’s recommendations will cover a wide range of issues, including police presence, food trucks and the potential for activity in county parks.
Restaurant operators say transportation is a factor hurting Bethesda’s nighttime economy — people who drink in Bethesda are, for the most part, stuck in Bethesda, unless they want to take the Metro. Cost of living for young professionals has been another popular topic.
The recommendations will likely include adjusting the ratio to 45 percent food and 55 percent alcohol sold, according to a presentation last month of the draft plan from Task Force Chair Heather Dlhopolsky. There might also be a recommendation for a special alcohol license to better accommodate restaurants with late-night bar traffic and a proposal to move the county’s 2 a.m. closing time back.
In D.C., restaurants are required to show 45 percent of annual sales came from food. But the District also has a Tavern license designation that simply requires an establishment to serve food. (Though the Tavern license is notoriously more difficult to obtain because of community opposition.)
Kathie Durbin, the chief of Licensure, Regulation & Education for the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control and a former bartender in Bethesda, has said she’s open to the recommendations.
But she has also said too much of the blame is put on the 50-50 ratio. Liquor Control doesn’t actively search for ratio violations and will typically look for sales records only when an establishment has drawn complaints or is a known trouble spot.
The county law requires a restaurant in its first year with a liquor license to submit monthly reports detailing the ratio of food sold compared to alcohol sold. If the licensee doesn’t hit 45 percent food sold for three straight months in that first year, or if the Board of Liquor Control finds it didn’t meet the requirement after the first year, it can revoke a liquor license.
Violations of the ratio requirement are few and far between.
According to Liquor Control alcohol violation reports going back three years, there have been four examples of a ratio violation.
Each involved restaurants in Gaithersburg or Germantown and were, at least initially, resolved with fines ranging from $100 to $800. The last reported ratio violation was paid on Oct. 14, 2011 by a since shuttered Gaithersburg sports bar.
So far, there hasn’t been any voiced community opposition to changing the ratio or tinkering with other ways to help attract late-night crowds.
An unscientific survey from Councilmember Hans Riemer (D-At large) found most people in Montgomery County, regardless of age, recognized the county needs to improve its bar and restaurant options.
A majority of almost every demographic group said Montgomery County needs to focus on improving dining and entertainment options to improve quality of life and attract younger workers. Overall, 74 percent said that statement is closer to their view.
Twenty-six percent of respondents said the competing statement, that Montgomery is a suburban community and is fine the way it is, is closer to their view.
The Task Force is set to hold its final meeting and present its recommendations on Oct. 21 at the Executive Office Building in Rockville.