SIMON NATTRASS: Local businesses at odds with liquor laws

In Paris or Milan, café patrons would be shocked to find a business that didn’t at least sell wine and beer, if not a few spirits...

In Paris or Milan, café patrons would be shocked to find a business that didn’t at least sell wine and beer, if not a few spirits to chase that light lunch or freshen your morning coffee. While the sale of liquor in cafes and other businesses possessing Food Primary licenses is technically legal in this province, the more paternalistic instincts of the BC Liquor Control Board (LCB) ensure that the classic Parisian café is becoming a distant dream for The Capital.

It took a year for Meg Iredale-Gray, part owner of Solstice Café, to receive her Food Primary license and a little longer for an amendment to satisfy the LCB’s fear of audience participation during events. Thinking all was well, she was surprised a short while later when a liquor inspector decided she had broken the conditions of her license by selling too much alcohol during their 45-minute visit.

Despite an arduous approval process, Iredale-Gray says most of her difficulties have come after being licensed.

“We seem to be stuck in a limbo where there’s not a proper license for us.” Instead, the LCB has — in a classic move of bureaucratic alchemy — transmuted cafes into restaurants. This new role carries with it the expectation that cafés will sell more food than alcohol every hour.

For event venues like Solstice, this means risking a fine every time concert-goers opt for a beer instead of a coffee during a three or four-hour event.

What’s more, regardless of a business’s total sales, guilt is determined on the spot by a liquor inspector, meaning the threat of arbitrary fines is always looming. “It’s what the inspector sees that matters. If they observe people buying alcohol and not food, they say you’re serving outside of your conditions.”

Solstice isn’t the only local business to find itself at odds with the LCB. In the coming months, Iredale-Gray and several other business owners will be drafting a proposal to the board in the hopes of addressing some of its more extreme inconsistencies.

With inspectors arbitrarily enforcing the unachievable demands of outdated laws made by an unaccountable arm of the government, it’s a wonder any business manages to navigate the Kafka-esque labyrinth of the LCB and win the right to serve a beer or two. M

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