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News | Club Fighters: Foes of private membership law let it rip at DABC meeting



“I’m tired of being called names [by people who don’t speak English] where you don’t even know what the heck they are saying,” Moab-based Woody’s Tavern owner Shari Beck says. 


On one Friday, over a four-hour period, Beck had 27 people turn around and leave when they learned they had to pay for private club membership to have a drink at her bar. A would-be customer from Manchester, England, was furious at having to shell out $4 before he could go in, she says. Then there are the tour buses, bringing what Beck describes as one of the largest influx of foreigners Moab has seen in 20 years. She has to wave a multi-lingual sign as she tries to explain Utah’s liquor laws to Japanese tourists.


Beck’s frustration with Utah’s liquor laws found much support this morning at the DABC Commission. The commission held the first of two open hearings on doing away with private club status. Bar owners and private citizens let rip with at times emotional speeches about what several described as Utah’s “quirky” liquor laws.


Sam Granato, DABC Commission chairman, opened the meeting by acknowledging they were looking at changing laws “we’ve had for 40 years.” It quickly got testy when Bill Martin, with Real Estate Professionals for Economic Growth, cited a survey that he says shows liquor laws “come up time and again” as a negative perception image for out-of-state companies considering locating in Utah. “In my personal opinion, we are not being hospitable to our guests,” Martin said.


Commissioner Kathryn Balmforth was less than happy. “Are non-drinkers to be disenfranchised from this issue entirely?” she said.


The drinkers weren’t happy either. One man from Park City said the liquor laws were made by people who don’t drink, adding this parallel: “We have lifeguards who don’t swim.” Ernest Hughes, owner of Faces in Salt Lake City, complained of how commission how difficult it was even staying in business. “I’m the best cook in town,” he said. “But when I tell people I have to sell them a pub card before they can taste my food, they turn away.”

A former Marine, Nate Daniels, said the liquor laws made no sense at all. He cited having to move from one table to the one next to it at Fiddler’s Elbow club in Sugar House after he requested a glass of wine with his steak dinner. Since Fiddler’s Elbow is a “mixed-use” bar, one section of the establishment is off-limits to alcohol consumption.


The most passionate plea though, came from Ogden-based Wine Cellar owner Warren Mitchell. “Just trust me,” he pled to the commission. “It’s not the $5 membership card that’s stopping people getting drunk, it’s me.” He described a drunk who came to his jazz bar looking for more booze. Mitchell sat him down, “pumped him with coffee,” and put him in a cab for home.


For a man who identified himself only as “Todd from Draper,” the private club requirement is too much. He said he calculated that his family spent $3000 less on eating out in Utah than they had when they lived in California. He blames the state’s decidedly odd liquor laws. “I find the membership card fee insulting,” he said. “I’ve never paid a membership fee once. I choose not to pay for something from which I’m getting no value.” 


Opposition to the idea of dropping the private club status came from Mothers Against Drunk Drivers’ Janey Brown. She told the commission how her daughter had to pull out the feeding tube from her four-month-old granddaughter in a hospital bed after their car had been hit by a drunk driver. Brown said her husband, had found the driver’s membership card to a private club among the establishment’s paperwork, identifying where the driver had sunk 21 beers before he was thrown out.


Bountiful resident Laura Bunker also worried about the message any relaxing of the liquor laws would send to young people. What was being sacrificed, she said, in the push to end private clubs? “Is alcohol really the best this state has to offer?”


The second and last hearing on the private club issue will take place on June 17, at 6 p.m.