Liquor-by-the-drink ordinance seems tailor-made to crush only applicant

Lookout Mountain entrepreneur Chris Stone thought initially that Dade County's new liquor-by-the-drink ordinance had come into existence just in time to allow him to serve beer and wine with his artisan pizza at the Lookout Mountain Pizza Company, the restaurant he plans to open in April on Scenic Highway.

But a closer look at the ordinance revealed that it might feasibly have been written specifically to prevent him from doing so. "I feel like that very much," he told The Planet by phone on Friday.

At issue is a requirement in the ordinance that restaurants in the county must seat 60 to qualify for a liquor license. Stone's restaurant is more suitable for about 30, he said.

Stone says in a pinch he might be able to squeeze in double that, if it's allowable to count the patio as additional seating, and if everybody is feeling very friendly. He doesn't know if he could feed them all at once, though. He bought the old Art Box on Lookout Mountain, which he says is about 1400 square feet, and is fixing it up as a eatery.

Though the health department has visited several times as Stone has worked on the building, guiding him through the requirements as he retools the place, he does not know yet whether his restaurant will be pronounced capable of holding a specific number of people. "I still have to talk to the fire marshal," he said.

One way or the other, Stone doesn't think seating capacity should impact his ability to open as a full-scale restaurant. In his day job as an airline pilot, says Stone, he's eaten at restaurants all over the world, and some of the most memorable have been intimate 20-seat venues.

Asked about the 60-seat requirement, Dade County Executive Ted Rumley did not appear likely to back down on it. "It's an average-size restaurant," he said.

He said other commissioners had held out for a higher requirement, 75 or even 100, and that the 60 was a compromise.

The commissioners earlier disclosed that the rationale of their 2015 resolution, which led to the November 2016 liquor-by-the-drink referendum, was to allow a national chain such as Logan's or Friday's to open in Dade, and that specifying a certain number of seats and other such particulars was to prevent the establishment of "honky-tonks" in the unincorporated county.

For perspective, the Artzy Cafe in downtown Trenton seats 30 to 35, a staff member there estimated, while an employee of Rafael's on Highway 11 North said her place seats precisely 93.

But both the Artzy Cafe and Rafael are located within Trenton city limits. Trenton passed its own ordinance allowing beer and wine sales in 2010. That ordinance does not set forth a minimum number of seats.

At present, Chris Stone is the only prospective applicant for a liquor license in the unincorporated county. Asked if he were aware the ordinance as written would prevent Stone from serving, Rumley said, "We didn't cater this for just one restaurant."

The Dade County Commission had the first reading of the ordinance at its regular March meeting. The measure is slated to become law after a second reading at the April meeting. Rumley had earlier said that it might undergo some changes after input from Dade Sheriff Ray Cross, but that it was substantially finished.

Chris Stone also thinks the ordinance will go into law as written. "They think that what we've got there is good, and it's not good."

"It's not good" is also the opinion of another important player, Dade restaurateur. Johnny Holland. Holland, owner of the Canyon Grill atop Lookout, last week wrote a letter to Dade County commissioners to that effect, and he shared that letter with The Planet.

Holland, whose restaurant has won regional awards, had stayed firmly out of the liquor-by-the-drink issue. His patrons are allowed to "brown bag" bottles, bringing their own wine to drink with the upmarket entrees served by the Canyon Grill. That model has worked well for everyone involved for years, and Holland saw no reason to change it. "I don't have a dog in the fight," he said.

But he became interested in the matter for Chris Stone's sake. Stone's restaurant will be the neighbor of his, said Holland, and: "I like seeing the people around me succeed." Holland doesn't think Stone can succeed without selling wine and beer to bolster what he makes on food.

Holland was also annoyed by the zoning aspects of the ordinance, which limits hard alcohol sales to within two miles of the interstate. Government restrictions and regulations to this degree, he said, are plain bad for business. "It just hinders growth," he said.

Holland himself might want to grow his restaurant down the road, he said, adding not just wine and beer to his menu but also serving mixed drinks. That's verboten by the ordinance now because, though Holland's restaurant seats over 100, his Lookout location is way over two miles from the interstate.

He says that the Dade Commission should not try to squelch local businesses such as his and Stone's but should welcome them with an attitude of: "Let's think of ways to work together."

Holland said that most of the Dade commissioners have answered his letter courteously though he doesn't know if he's had any perceptible effect on their plans for the ordinance:

ere, reproduced in its entirety, is Holland's letter:

County commissioners, I have stated that I currently have no desire to pursue a license to sell alcohol. There are several factors at the moment, but it's something we just aren't prepared to do right now, in this moment. However, things could change tomorrow and we would be thrilled to have that ability. I don't want to see rules put into place that will hinder my decision should I change my mind, and I certainly don't want to jump through hoops to get an amendment or special treatment. We are considered one of the best restaurants in the Chattanooga area and have been recognized as a top 10 in Georgia. This does some things in my mind to help Dade County. We have a large following of guests that travel from all over to dine with us. Spending their hard earned money in our county instead of Chattanooga, Dalton, Fort Payne, Atlanta, Birmingham. We hope that the citizens of our county are proud to have us here.

I think it's a positive as our locals bring in guests from out of town to visit us and show off their favorite local place that's located out in the middle of nowhere. Some things that we have done since we have taken over ownership. We have set our own minimum wage at $10 an hour to bring on quality employees and provide them a wage that can support them as well as many advancement opportunities. (Also increasing tax revenue) When we started at CG in 2014 we had roughly 15 employees including me and my wife. We are now close to 30 employees and we want to keep growing. We feel that expanding the abundance of potential in the New Salem community with places such as Chris Stone's Lookout Mtn Pizza Company will help to increase property values, which makes our area a bit more exclusive thereby potentially creating safer neighborhoods.

All of this increases tax revenue and means the county should be doing things to help local businesses and business owners thrive and succeed, not hinder them. Red tape and bureaucratic rules only discourage growth, and in business if you aren't growing you're dying.

My wife Jessica and I could move our business from Dade county to the Chattanooga area and increase our revenue stream by at least 5x in my conservative estimations. We are looking to leave a legacy, not make buckets of money. We feel it would be a huge disservice to not only the community as a whole, but to the many people we employee that rely on us as a place that is not only convenient for them, but also a wonderful environment with good pay. Something that the people of our wonderful community can grow with and be proud of. Something my children and grandchildren can see thrive and be proud to see and hopefully be a part of.

We have been so fortunate to have some of the best people from this area employed with us. From our original founders Lawton and Karen Haygood who invested so much in this restaurant and took a huge risk by staying in this community to the original employees Becky Pennington, Brenda Eubanks, and Carmen Lunsford who have been with us 18-20 years serving and leading by example. In fact the majority of our core staff is made up of long term people that have 5+ years with us. We also have had the great opportunity to have some of the brightest young people from local schools working for us. Valedictorians, salutatorians, athletes, and just all around bright driven young people. We have seen some local young people come in here and become great adults and parents and business owners/people and they will continue to grow. I'm not saying these things as a pat on the back to myself, it's to show the quality and potential of our homegrown citizens. These young people are our future business owners and leaders, and we should be looking for ways to encourage them to invest in Dade County.

I continue to see the desire to bring in large corporate restaurants into our town. How would those places be better for community than our current or potential future mom and pops? No offense to Logans or Chilis, but that's where people go to get happy hour drunk. Cheap food and cheap booze. I have nothing against those places and I personally dine there myself, however if I understand the rules are to limit liquor sales to within a couple of miles of the interstate, what good does that do for our community? If the idea is to bring in interstate traffic, to me that just brings on the potential riff raff and trouble makers...I'm not opposed to having these large corporate chains, however if they are allowed to sell liquor or any type of alcohol, then our locally owned businesses that support our community should have the same rights and should not be zoned out of their rights. If making Dade County better is the idea, hindering current and future business owners with these rules is the wrong way to do it. We are the people buying and selling goods in this county. We are the ones purchasing property in this county. We are the ones doing business (when we can) with other local business owners. Our guests are our neighbors, our family, and our friends. We laugh when they laugh and hurt when they hurt.

That's the beauty of this community in my mind and there is so much to offer here. Lookout Mountain and the New Salem community has such extreme potential for growth with local business. We have outdoors hiking and camping, a beautiful golf course, hang gliding, a big art scene, different styles of local true Mom and Pop eateries, and some of the most beautiful scenery in the world to me. We have internet speeds from our local phone company that rival and beat many large cities.

To me Lookout Mtn is a retirees dream as well as younger business people needing to be close to a large city yet still in a country, family friendly environment. In closing, we would just like to see everyone have a fair shake here. Let's work together to encourage people to keep their money in Dade County. Let's work together to help keep our quality citizens investing in Dade and work to bring in quality out of towners that want a great community, and become local citizens that care about the community such as Tom Pounds.

Thanks for taking the time to read my novel and you are welcome to respond in email, text, or phone call. As some of you may know by now I'm a bit shy with large groups of people but if we could sit down one day in a closed environment I'd be happy to do so.

--Johnny Holland

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