Chris Stone announced on Wednesday he has given up trying to obtain a beer and wine license from a county government whose regulations seem designed to keep small businesses like his from selling beer and wine.
"I'm not jumping into that briar patch," he said by phone on Wednesday.
Stone, around whom a citizens group formed to pressure the Dade County Commission to draft its liquor-by-the-drink ordinance in such a way to make it possible for him to serve beer and wine at his artisan startup, Lookout Mountain Pizza Company on Scenic Highway, says he will open without a liquor license.
"In the end, the ordinance, it just doesn't work for me," said Stone.
Stone still hopes to have the restaurant, which will serve gourmet Genoa-style brick-oven pizza, up and running by the second weekend of May, in time for the Mountain Art and Craft Celebration at Cloudland Canyon State Park. But he will open, says Stone, as a BYOB (bring your own bottle) operation like The Canyon Grill across Scenic Highway, allowing customers to "brown bag" their own beer or wine.
"It's a lot less liability as far as doing something wrong with that ordinance, which I feel is full of gotchas, you knows, loopholes and traps," said Stone. "Until I get a grip on running the restaurant, I don't think I want to deal with the troubles of that ordinance at all."
The Dade County ordinance as finalized at April's commission meeting would initially have disqualified Stone's place by requiring that restaurants in the unincorporated county serving alcoholic beverages of any kind have a minimum of 60 seats. Stone's 1400-square-foot space, a renovated art gallery that started life as a garage in the 1950s, more comfortably seats around 30.
But--whether or not in response to response to protests from the citizens group, Concerned Citizens Who Voted Yes to Distilled Spirits--the commission at its April 6 meeting said Stone (right) would be allowed to use patio seating and extra chairs to qualify for the 60-seat minimum.
Now Stone says he's not fooling with that, either. "One of them, I don't know which commissioner it was, said I could stack chairs around," said Stone. "Hell, I'm not stacking a bunch of chairs up."
With no zoning in the county, said Stone: "My God, we've got enough places around the community that need cleaned up without me stacking up chairs all over the place."
Anyway, said Stone, as written the ordinance would keep him from allowing brown-bagging if he had a license. That means he couldn't allow diners to BYOB on Sundays, when the ordinance forbids him to sell them alcohol of any kind. "They're just too restrictive," he said.
In any case, he said, the $1200 beer/wine license fee was too expensive for him as a startup. "I would have to sell 1000 beers before I started making a profit," said Stone. "I would lose money if I went through with it at this point, just getting started." He pointed out that when neighboring Walker County passed liquor by the drink, it set its first fee at $50.
Stone said the county commission had mishandled the drafting of the ordinance by not consulting those who would be affected. "They never asked for any opinion," he said. "In the end they just implemented what they were going to implement. It's their baby."
Unable to keep a note of bitterness from his voice, Stone said the whole skirmish with the county had been pointless. "I've wasted a lot of time and energy on this thing," he said. "I wish I hadn't even pursued it."
And though he would probably deny he takes the defeat personally, Stone was the only prospective applicant for a liquor license in Dade, his name became associated with the LBTD issue, and the way it was bandied about by local pols certainly did not escape his notice.
"I recently saw Ted [Rumley, the commission chairman] on television saying that the county wasn't going to get rich on Chris Stone. Well, I agree it's not going to but every dollar counts," said Stone. "They're losing the licensing fee from me and they're losing the tax dollars from me."
Is the county happy about that? The Planet asked Chairman Rumley, who answered that happiness didn't come into it. "We done our job," he said. "It's up to the people who want to open a restaurant--if they want to abide by the rules, they can. It's a lot lighter ordinance than some of the other counties'."
The Planet asked how much it had cost Dade in legal fees to draft an ordinance which, meant to generate tax money on alcohol sales, had now effectively prevented any such sales by the only prospective seller. Rumley said he had no idea.
"It's not a tremendous amount of money," said Rumley. "It didn't cost us as much as I thought. I thought he [the county attorney] would have had a lot more time in it. I would have thought several months instead of what, ninety days, three months. I was afraid it would go into the summer."
The Planet has requested a dollar amount for what "ninety days, three months" of legal work add up to. Rumley said he would address that next week, when County Clerk Don Townsend returns from a few days' vacation.
Also next week, at 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 4, in the Dade Adminstrative Building, is the commission regular May meeting.
Citizens Who Voted Yes won't be there. "I'm guessing this is buried for another 20 years, unless there are some major changes in Dade's political structure," said the group's Greg Foster.