The co-owner of the popular local restaurants Olazzo and Gringos & Mariachis has banned Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich from his eateries as a result of comments Elrich made during a council briefing about efforts to reform the county’s Department of Liquor Control (DLC).
Roberto Pietrobono said in a letter to Elrich that he shared with Bethesda Beat last week that the council member owes restaurateurs an apology—and that he won’t welcome Elrich back to his restaurants until he publicly apologizes. Olazzo has locations in Bethesda and Silver Spring; Gringos & Mariachis is in Bethesda.
Elrich said in response that his comments were aimed at alcohol distributors, who he says were trying to use restaurant owners to support legislation that would have set up a referendum to allow voters to decide if private distributors should be allowed to distribute alcohol, a process currently controlled by the DLC. Many county officials said during the debate over the DLC that the referendum would pass if it was on the ballot.
Elrich’s comments were made during a County Council briefing Feb. 22 about state bills that could affect the county. Council members were talking about changes that had been made to a council-supported bill that would have allowed private distributors to sell certain products such as craft beer or fine wine that the DLC doesn’t regularly stock—so-called special order products. Days before the discussion took place, a General Assembly committee had reworked the special order bill so that it called for the creation of a task force to study problems at and alternatives to the DLC. The council members were discussing potential amendments that they hoped could save their version of the bill.
During the discussion, Elrich said that he doesn’t feel badly for restaurant owners and others in the local alcohol industry who didn’t support the special order legislation and instead backed a bill sponsored by Del. Bill Frick that would have set up the referendum.
“I kind of do blame the restaurateurs for this,” Elrich said. “If they had just shut up and said ‘We’ll give your thing the chance to work,’ they could have solved this problem. They’re the ones that, given a solution to their whining, decided they were going to go ahead and steal everything. I’m not terribly sympathetic.”
In his letter to Elrich, Pietrobono wrote:
“You were, of course, referring to the efforts of our restaurant and hotel community to bring some reason, reliability, and a business-like approach to the county’s Department of Liquor Control. Needless to say, I was appalled by the tone and the implications of your statements. Basically calling us ‘liars and thieves.’”
The restaurant owner added that Elrich should apologize “to me and my fellow restaurant and hotel owners and colleagues, who were simply exercising our rights as significant taxpayers to seek redress from an outdated and worn out government policy and program that is harming our businesses—and Montgomery County’s chances at ever realistically incubating a ‘nighttime economy.’ ”
Pietrobono had previously testified during a state bill public hearing in favor of Frick’s legislation.
In response, Elrich, who said he frequents Olazzo, said that during the DLC reform debate he was trying to shield the county from the significant budget shortfall that would occur if the county were to lose the approximately $30 million in profits the DLC generates each year.
“I was far from poo-pooing the concerns of small businesses and was in no way, shape, or form a defender of the current system,” Elrich wrote in a response to Pietrobono. “Unfortunately other actors decided this was the moment to try to completely undo the system and create a huge hole in our revenues… [M]y comment was aimed at the wholesalers who, I feel, were happy to use your angst/anger (justified) over DLC’s operations to try to pry open the county, without regard for our fiscal health and the impact on taxpayers. So I will apologize for my imprecision.”
Elrich also wrote that he believes restaurateurs were given inaccurate information about how eliminating the DLC could help them because the state of Maryland only enables certain distributors to sell certain products. He said existing distributors in the state are in a “non-competitive” environment and that they won’t necessarily provide better selection and service if given the chance to operate in the county.
The delivery and selection of special order products was identified by an ad hoc council committee as one of the biggest problems at the department. The DLC has struggled to deliver the products accurately and in a timely fashion, and business owners have said the special-order selection is limited and can be expensive compared to neighboring jurisdictions that have private distributors. There have been fewer complaints from the local hospitality industry about DLC “stock” products such as Bud Light or Yellow Tail wines, which the DLC buys in bulk and stores at its Gaithersburg warehouse.
Privatizing special orders was seen by council members as a relatively inexpensive change the council could make—eliminating special order sales would reduce the DLC’s contribution to the county’s general fund by about $5 million, according to an Office of Legislative Oversight report.
Neither Frick’s bill nor the council-supported special order bill generated enough support from the county’s state delegation to allow to the legislation to move through the General Assembly this year. Instead, local state legislators asked County Executive Ike Leggett to set up a task force to make recommendations on how best to reform the DLC. Leggett has not yet set a timeline for establishing the task force.
Update – 12:02 p.m. – Brickside Food & Drink owner Brian Vasile said Monday in an email to Bethesda Beat that Elrich is also banned from his Bethesda restaurant.