Alcohol withdrawal

Chico entrepreneur protests proposed restrictions to his would-be restaurant

Will Brady stands in front of the storefront he is remodeling as an oyster bar.

Will Brady stands in front of the storefront he is remodeling as an oyster bar.

photo by tom gascoyne

Will Brady is frustrated. The 40-year-old Boston-to-Chico transplant opened The Banshee bar and restaurant on Second Street seven years ago. Now he wants to see if he can expand the success he’s had there by opening an oyster bar in a vacancy around the corner on Broadway, next to Collier Hardware.

“There are not enough places for the 40- to 50-year-olds to hang out,” he said during a tour of the space’s renovation. “The entire downtown is a playground for college kids.”

He wants to serve alcohol with the food, which according to a tentative menu will include shrimp, grilled fish, scallops, vegetables, and other items served a la carte. But to serve good food and make a profit, Brady said, he’s got to sell booze.

Brady began the project last June and said he has sunk more than $300,000 into the remodel, including a renovation of the basement and a cleanup of the back patio. The space has a high ceiling and the exposed interior brick wall common to so many downtown businesses.

He purchased the liquor license of the old Black Crow Grill and Taproom, which was located on the corner of West Second and Salem streets before closing a few years ago. There’s been a moratorium on granting new liquor licenses in the downtown Chico area for the last dozen years because there are so many relative to the city’s population. The Black Crow license is known as a “47,” which allows the on-site sale of food, beer, wine and spirits. Brady has the same type of license for The Banshee, where he can offer alcohol until 2 a.m.

But on April 25, Brady and his business partner, Sebastien Tamarelle, received a notice from Katherine Skuris, licensing representative for the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), telling them she was investigating their application for a license.

The investigation was triggered by the Chico Police Department, and particularly Chief Kirk Trostle, whose concerns were reportedly triggered by Chico State’s recent “Call to Action” asking citizens, merchants and booze peddlers to become more responsible. There are 13 conditions listed in the ABC notice, including that the “premises shall be maintained as a bona-fide food restaurant and shall provide a menu containing an assortment of foods normally offered in such restaurants.”

It also says the gross sales of alcohol should not exceed the gross sales of food and that there will be no live entertainment, including music, disc jockeys, karaoke, topless entertainment or fashion shows. Brady said he is OK with such restrictions. What he questions is the ban on a happy hour offering reduced drink prices and the allowance of alcohol sales only between the hours of 11 a.m. and 11 p.m.

“Just serving food … is just not profitable,” he said. “It needs to be sustained by selling alcohol.”

He said The Banshee makes money off of alcohol to help pay for the food it serves.

“We try to be profitable,” he said. “We charge what the market will bear. We don’t want to be the most expensive restaurant in town, and without alcohol we just can’t have a restaurant. I want people to have good food, and as such we don’t make money off the food. I don’t think the people in Chico are going to go for San Francisco prices.”

Brady said he believes he’s being used as a scapegoat for Chico’s drinking problem.

Chico police Capt. Ford Porter, speaking on behalf of Trostle, said when the ABC gets a request to either issue or reissue a liquor license, it asks for the local police department’s input. He said ABC has broken the state down into “census tracts” that it uses to determine its recommendations.

He said ABC recommends six “on-sale establishments” for the area that includes downtown. Currently there are 63.

“The biggest concern is that we are already a thousand times over what their recommendation is,” Porter said. “Regardless of how the establishment hopes things will turn out, every time you open a new one it does impact how things work at night.”

He said the recommendation to ABC was to limit the time of sales so that such establishments have to clear out before the more-traditional bars do.

Porter said another bid to use an existing liquor license has also been brought to the department’s attention. That is the transfer of the Towne Lounge’s license to a new bar called The Argus to be located on Second Street near the El Rey Theatre.

That transfer, which had been held up since last September, is finally a go because Eric Hart, owner of the El Rey, has dropped his protest of the bar’s location (see Downstroke, page 8). But in fact, conditions for the new bar allow it to serve alcohol from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. on all days except Halloween, Labor Day, César Chávez Day, and the weekend of Chico State graduation, when in each case it will stop serving at 11 p.m.

City Manager Brian Nakamura said there have been some communication problems surrounding the issue.

“I’m not sure that we are all on the same page,” he said. “I’ve been in contact with Mr. Brady, and his concerns clearly share that he is trying to open a fairly upscale restaurant, which is fine.”

He said the license Brady has allows the sale of beer, wine and distilled spirits.

“The issue is the restaurant has to be operated and maintained as a bona-fide eating place,” Nakamura said. “So I think the issue [for Brady] is, when does that mean [he] cannot make alcohol a primary item of sale? The type of license he is in possession of means that he has to continue to serve food as the primary source of revenue.”

He said the city is still trying to work things out so that Brady can have a successful business.

“From a community perspective, a lot of the issues related to alcohol sales and consumption are critical for our downtown,” Nakamura said. “At the same time, we are not trying to be unduly harsh on the implementation of the license.”

For his part, Brady remains frustrated. He said the oyster bar will be no different than The Banshee in terms of operation.

“We are a bona-fide eating place,” he said. “To say we are anything different is absurd. More than half the staff works in the kitchen.”

Still, he holds out hope that he can convince the city that he needs extended liquor sales to run the type of high-end eatery he has in mind.

“I get the sense we are close to getting it done,” he said. “I’m trying to guide these guys with my philosophy on how to run a restaurant. I’m gambling on whether or not there is a need for this, which is going to be a foodie kind of place with a little less reliance on cheese and butter.”