Dade County Awards First On-Premises Beer and Wine License to Geneva's Mtn Top Cafe

Beer Board clerk Patty Murphy goes through required documents with board members and the owners of the Mtn Top Cafe. Clockwise around the table from Ms. Murphy are Robert "Smokey" Russell, chairman; Perry Voclain, restaurant co-owner; board members Darrell Pardue and John Gothard; concerned citizen Susie Drake Talbott; board members D.L. ("Peanut") Moore and Dorayne ("Rooster") Stephens; and Stan Carnahan, restaurant co-owner.

"This is a historic day for us," said Patty Murphy.

Indeed. Ms. Murphy, a Dade Tax Assessor's employee who acts as clerk for the county Alcoholic Beverage Control, or so-called "Beer," Board, had just conferred Dade's blessing for the first restaurant in the unincorporated county to serve beer and wine. After going through extensive documents, dotting innumerable i's and crossing countless t's, the owners of the newly-reopened Geneva's Mtn Top Cafe had just been granted their malt beverage on-premises license.

It had been a long time coming. Though Dade was forced in 1981 to legalize package sales of beer and wine by a lawsuit that pointed out it outlawed booze on paper while cheerfully overlooking any amount of overt bootlegging in practice, the county's journey away from Temperance since then has been in baby steps only.

Nothing changed at all from 1981 to 2010, when the Trenton City Commission unilaterally legalized beer and wine by the drink. The county had had a referendum on the issue in 1996 and it had failed, but the city makes its own rules. Still, after eight years only two city restaurants have so far taken advantage of the opportunity to serve.

But back to the county: In 2016, another liquor referendum was held and this time voters in every district said yes to liquor by the drink--not just malt beverages, mind, but any kind of alcohol--by a comfortable 60-40 margin. That's going on two years ago, and still no licenses had been issued before Tuesday.

At issue was first the county's foot-dragging on putting together rules for issuing liquor licenses, then the restrictive nature of the ordinance it did at length come up with. Dade put in a minimum seating requirement that seemed aimed at squashing any attempt by small, local businesses to serve alcoholic beverages while simultaneously clearing the way for big corporate players by eliminating initial rules against happy-hour deals.

That, along with the no-Sunday-sales rule, combined with the stricture that establishments with liquor licenses may not allow customers to "brown-bag" beer and wine, while those without may, was enough to do in the only prospective applicant for a serving license last year. The Lookout Mountain Pizza Company opened quietly in July 2017 without a license, instead allowing customers to "BYOB," a situation that endures to this day.

A second spark of interest in serving adult beverages came from the The Trenton Golf Club late last year, but Ms. Murphy said the Beer Board has so far not received a formal application from that establishment. Perhaps not, but the golf club's desire for a variance has been discussed at at least two county commission meetings, with the county sheriff already pronounced as against it, and the county executive chairman "standing with the sheriff" in opposition. The club would require a variance because the county ordinance specifically requires eligible establishments to be on state rather than county roads. Trenton Golf is on Back Valley, a county road.

It was into this atmosphere of no no no from the county government (mixed cacophonously with a chorus of yeses from the voters) that the three partners who bought the old Geneva's Mtn Top Cafe on Highway 136 atop Lookout tendered their application to serve beer and wine. Two of those partners, Perry Voclain and Stan Carnahan, were on hand at the beer board meeting on Tuesday to answer any remaining questions--and allay any remaining fears--on the part of the board.

"Our intention is dinner only," said Voclain. "We don't want people to stay there and drink."

Carnahan stressed that the Mtn Top is a meat-and-three restaurant that closes at 8 p.m. "I don't expect anybody to linger," he said. "They're there for a meal."

That was the message the two brought to the meeting--We are a restaurant not a bar! We'll serve alcohol but not much alcohol! and not that alcoholic!--with polite voices and soothing tones. "It's going to be a nice little place where you have a beer and a burger, a steak and a glass of wine," Voclain summed it up.

It was clear the partners had reason for their cautious handling of the board members. Though Ms. Murphy made it clear from the start the Mtn Top had cleared all the hurdles, there was some lingering resistance. "We have enough drunks in Dade County," said one, Dorayne "Rooster" Stephens. Drunks should do it a home, he opined: "When they walk out on the streets they're endangering my life."

Voclain said he and his partners had served wine at their other business, the Chattanooga Auction House, for 25 years. "We know exactly how to stop somebody from drinking," he said.

Was this opening the door to just anyone who wanted to sell beer? Stephens had asked Ms. Murphy at the beginning of the meeting. Yes, said Ms. Murphy, as long as they were willing to comply with the requirements of the ordinance.

And those requirements were daunting as well. The eligible restaurant cannot have large signs proclaiming it sells alcohol. However, it must have a prominent sign proclaiming patrons must be 21 to consume it, and another big one warning women their babies may have birth defects if they imbibe while pregnant. They must keep their food-drink ratio to 60/40 and keep detailed proof of that for Dade County audits; they must impress all these rules on their staffers, who are required to know the ordinance as well. They must pay an application fee of $250, a beer and wine serving fee of $1200, and $48.25 a pop to fingerprint and background-check their staff. Voclain and Carnahan professed themselves willing to meet and exceed all requirements. By the way, they're fine on the seating requirement, too, with 75 seats and 30 more coming when they open their new patio.

Another requirement is that a registered agent for the licensed business must be a legal resident of Dade County. The Mtn Top partners own houses in Dade but until now maintained legal residence in Tennessee, where their auction business is. But one, Voclain, has decided to make his home permanently in Dade, and accordingly closed recently on the sale of his Chattanooga house. "I'm never leaving the county," said Voclain. "I love it." The beer board decided that that was close enough, that since Voclain already owned a house here, and will now reside in it full-time, he passed on that one, too.

In fact, the partners having met all requirements, the board voted to grant them their beer-and-wine license. "I'm still not 100 percent on it," grumbled Rooster Stephens, but the vote was unanimous and history was made.

Ms. Murphy explained after the meeting that she could have gone ahead and issued all necessary paperwork if the partners had prepaid their $48.25-a-head processing fees for their nine employees, but that they had elected to make sure the license went through before they wrote that check.

What's next? After procuring the county permit, the partners now have to obtain the state serving license from Georgia. Ms. Murphy said that's a matter of pointing, clicking and filling in blanks on a state website, after which it shouldn't take more than a couple of weeks before they are pronounced legal to serve. It is entirely possible that such a consummation might be of sufficient gravity to attract The Planet's gimlet eye, resulting in a subsequent announcement in these pages. As Ms. Murphy said to the partners in farewell: "I'm sure you know everybody will be watching."

With that in mind, it seems appropriate to close with an announcement of the Mtn Top's new hours, which will be effective Monday. The restaurant had recently changed from a breakfast-and-lunch-only place to one that served dinner on limited evenings. Now it will be a lunch-and-dinner place that serves breakfast on limited mornings. It will open Monday through Friday 11 a.m.-8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m.-3 p.m. The restaurant's address is 12136 Highway 136.

And a note on the name: The Planet in a previous article called it the "Mountain Top Cafe" but a waitress explained it was always spelled "Mtn Top" to differentiate it from a similarly named establishment in a nearby town. Meanwhile, the menu the partners had submitted to the beer board was labeled "Geneva's." When questioned about that, the partners replied, "Oh, it will always be Geneva's."

So "Geneva's Mtn Top Cafe" the place was and remains, in case readers wish to get the name exactly right while proposing a toast...

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