Shelby restaurants likely to lose Sunday alcohol sales

Published 10:50 am Wednesday, February 18, 2009

An opinion issued by Alabama’s attorney general last week apparently led to a new interpretation of Alabama’s laws governing Sunday liquor sales.

That new interpretation — and its enforcement — will likely mean Shelby County restaurants that serve alcoholic drinks on Sundays will be unable to do so come Oct. 1.

Bob Martin, an attorney for the Alabama ABC Board, said the board’s administrator, Emory Folmar, sought Alabama Attorney General Troy King’s opinion on the issue, in part, after receiving complaints from restaurants owners who don’t sell alcoholic beverages on Sundays, but are forced to compete with those that do.

Restaurants in Shelby County that sell alcohol on Sunday do so because they have purchased not only a retail restaurant license, which allows for alcoholic beverage sales Monday through Saturday, but also a club license, which allows for alcohol sales on Sundays to those who pay a “membership” fee.

Martin said the two licenses were never meant to work in tandem.

“Restaurant licensees are required to be open to the general pubic and admit all ages during all times they are operating,” he said. “A club license is restricted to admitting members, who have been voted on by a committee of other members, in advance of the day they are admitted.”

Martin said issuing the dual licenses was simply a way to get around the prohibition of restaurant liquor sales on Sundays.

“Years ago, during another administration, someone decided they could get around the prohibition of liquor sales on Sunday by being a club on Sunday and a restaurant the other six days of the week,” he said. “Someone had enough political connections back in the ’90s to call down here and get them to allow this for somebody. Then, somebody else heard about it and they got both licenses, too.”

Martin said most areas of significant growth around the state, “went through the legislature, had referendums and we thought the problem had basically gone away,” he said.

When the ABC Board automated its licensing process last year is when officials in the board’s licensing department noticed the continued use of dual licenses, Martin said.

“We issue almost 14,000 licenses each year, all on of them on a year-to-year basis, all expiring on Sept. 30. All of that paperwork was done at each district office and sent the final portion here to actually print the licenses,” he said. “It was not until we all got online and automated that it jumped out at us that down in Dothan and Shelby County, we still have dual licensing going on. We saw that we were sending more than one license to the same address.”

Of the 90 retail-restaurant licenses issued by the ABC Board in Shelby County, 25 also have the club license, he said.

Those with club licensees have been notified that they must decide by May whether they will continue to operate as a retail restaurant, or operate full time as a club.

“We know Shelby County is having difficulty with this,” Martin said. “Our problem is we are tasked with enforcing the law and that’s really the way the law is written.”

Particularly hard hit are Shelby County restaurants which operate near the Jefferson County border and compete with restaurants there, where liquor sales on Sunday is allowed with a retail license.

In order for Shelby County retail restaurants to serve alcohol on Sundays, the state legislature must vote to allow a referendum, which would allow Shelby County voters to decide the issue.

At present, support for such a referendum in the legislature doesn’t exist, said State Rep. Mike Hill.

Martin said he has heard a bill is pending in the legislature, which if approved would allow municipalities individually to choose to allow a referendum on Sunday alcohol sales.

“That would really solve the problem state wide. Most restaurants that have these (dual licenses) are within municipal limits,” he said. “It’s fairly simply to fix. I know that Gov. Riley’s office, even if it’s something he’s not necessarily in favor of, he’s in agreement with letting the people in each place decide.”

Hill said he enough support for the passage of that legislation is unlikely, too.

“There’s a bill down here seeking that. There’s one every year, and it never passes,” he said.