Restaurants, state regulators wrestle with alcohol service rule
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah restaurants are wrestling with a new law requiring those who serve alcohol to confirm that customers intend to order food and not just drink.
Servers find it "extremely awkward" and "annoying" to ask people if they plan to eat, said Julie Wilson, Deer Valley Resort food and beverage director. It's obvious, she said, that people who come in intend to have a meal, especially if they've made reservations.
Wilson told the Business and Labor Interim Committee on Wednesday that the Legislature should get rid of the "intent to dine" rule.
Lawmakers passed the law earlier this year at the request of restaurateurs to clarify the previous statute.
The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has drafted a proposal that calls for restaurants to get verbal confirmation that patrons intend to order food. It would also allow customers to have one alcoholic beverage before placing a food order.
The state liquor commission will consider the proposed rule in the coming weeks. It would then go to the legislative Rules Review Committee for final approval.
Sal Petilos, Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control executive director, said servers constantly asking patrons if they intend to eat could be seen as "inhospitable."
"The question becomes how much of a nanny you want to be. I prefer to not be much of a nanny," he told the committee.
Petilos said he believes the commission can adopt a rule that would keep restaurants from violating state law and accommodate customers who want to drink with their meals.
"I think this will help everyone," he said after the hearing. "Clearly, there are some concerns about how awkward it would be, how inhospitable it may be. But hopefully those discussions will produce something that results in consistent treatment of restaurants across the board."
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, said restaurateurs wanted the intent-to-dine provision clarified and now six months later want to do away with it.
He agreed it would be "silly" to ask customers if they intend to eat when they walk into a restaurant. But he said servers could simply ask patrons who order an alcoholic drink after they are seated if they intend to order food.
"That seems like a more rational interpretation of the new statute," he said.
State law requires restaurants to maintain a 70 percent to 30 percent food-to-alcohol ratio.
Valentine said the intent of the law is to keep restaurants from taking on the atmosphere of bars where the sale of food with alcohol is not required.
"I guess I'm kind of confused on all this," said Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City. "My assumption is if you go to a restaurant, your intent is to order food."
DABC regulators issued 48 citations to restaurants for serving alcohol without food last year, accounting for 10 percent of all violations statewide, Petilos said.
Paul Mero, executive director of the conservative Sutherland Institute, told the committee the Legislature should look at alcohol policy every five years "instead of allowing special interests to passively aggressively chip away session by session. You either believe that this a government role in protecting the public interest or you don't."
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