On Wednesday, May 6, the Los Angeles City Planning Department held a public webinar to provide additional information and answer stakeholder questions about the city’s proposed new program to make it much easier, and cheaper, for restaurants to obtain city permits for the sale of alcoholic beverages.
The basics of the program were introduced by City Planning Associate Niall Huffman, who explained that the proposed new permitting system is designed to help local restaurateurs get back on their feet after the devastation of the COVID-19 period. “We’re very cognizant of the challenges businesses will be facing during the post-COVID environment,” Huffman said. He noted that the city recognizes, in particular, that the liquor application process is definitely one of the most costly parts of opening a restaurant, but many restaurants suffer the process because alcohol sales are often a make-or-break element for their business. That said, though, the current permitting process can take many months to complete, and can cost well over $10,000…both of which can be intimidating hurdles.
In contrast, Huffman explained, the new ordinance would convert the city liquor permit process for restaurants from a discretionary application process, with extensive public review and hearings (the same process bars and liquor stores go through), to an administrative process under which approval would be a simple sign-off if the restaurant meets a lengthy list of very specific criteria.
First of all, Huffman made clear, the new rules would apply to sit-down restaurants only (not clubs or bars), would include 50 very specific performance standards for participants, and would depend heavily on mandated inspections for enforcement. The new approvals would allow qualifying restaurants to operate without a Conditional Use Permit for alcoholic beverage sales (CUB), and would set strict conditions of operation that would apply to all restaurants receiving the approvals. (Currently, both the state license and a city CUB are needed for restaurant alcohol sales, with specific operating conditions for each restaurant negotiated individually, often at length, between the restaurant, neighborhood groups, and the city during the permitting process.)
To qualify for the new administrative approvals, restaurants would still need (as they do now), a license to sell alcoholic beverages from the California state department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). But the city would not distinguish, as the state does, between restaurants that sell only wine and beer, and those that sell a full line of alcoholic beverages. That said, however, to qualify for the new city program, restaurants would need to:
- Offer full meal service, with alcohol sales incidental to the sale of food
- Maintain a full kitchen and dining room, with continuous sit-down food service during hours of operation
- Limit hours of operation from 7 am to 11 pm
- Maintain a minimum of 20 and a maximum of 150 seats for dining
- Have food brought to tables by wait staff (not passed to customers at a counter)
- Be individual (and individually-permitted) businesses, not covered by a “master” alcohol permit for a multi-business development, mall, or hotel
- Be open to all ages at all times
- Not require a cover charge or minimum drink purchase
- Not sell full bottles of spirits
- Not offer or participate in any sort of pre-paid activities in which tickets are exchanged for alcoholic beverages (like pub crawls)
- Have no pool/billiard tables, dancing, or adult entertainment
In addition, participating restaurants would have to abide by a number of “good neighbor standards,” including:
- No more than 30% of seats located outdoors
- No outdoor TV monitors or music
- A fully-enclosed building would have to separate outdoor seating from adjacent residential areas
- No shared seating
- No live entertainment, karaoke, or DJs
- Only background music allowed indoors
- Compliance with all city noise regulations
- No portable bars
- Cannot close entirely for private events (though they could maintain special rooms for parties and other private functions)
- Seating (such as high booths) cannot block views of the occupants
And they would have to adhere to strict safety and monitoring measures, including:
- Maintain the premises in good condition (free of debris and graffiti, trash bins maintained, have “no loitering” signs and adequate lighting)
- Have a camera surveillance system
- Have electronic age verification for purchase of alcoholic beverages
- No smoking/hookahs/vaping
- Have an on-duty manager at all times
- Have an alcohol training program for employees
And, finally, applicants would also have to pay city inspection fees, submit floor and site plans for the business, and record a covenant with the city, agreeing to comply with the program’s standards. Restaurants would also have to reapply to the program any time there is a change in their state-level alcohol license, floor plan, or ownership.
If restaurants do meet all of these criteria (in addition to others on the application checklist), approvals could be granted in less than three weeks from the date of an application, at a cost of less than $4,000 in basic fees – a huge reduction in both time and cost compared to current procedures. Restaurants that do not meet all the criteria would not be eligible for the administrative process, but could still apply for city Conditional Use liquor permits as they have always done (and as bars and liquor stores will also continue to do).
Benefits for Both New and Existing Restaurants
Huffman explained that while the new system would be especially beneficial to new restaurants, it would also apply to new restaurants currently in the middle of a CUB application process, or older restaurants with expiring CUBs, which could also apply under the new rules if they, too, meet all the elegibility criteria. (In addition, restaurants that do qualify, and which have already begun a CUB application or renewal process, could cancel that process and receive a partial fee refund, depending on how far along they are in the renewal process.)
Removal of Public Input on Applications
As noted above, Huffman was careful to make clear that one huge difference between the proposed new program and the current permitting process is the removal of public review and input before restaurant liquor permits are issued. While City Council offices and Neighborhood Councils would be notified of new restaurant liquor applications in their geographic areas under the new system, they would not otherwise be involved in or allowed to comment on individual applications, since approvals would be strictly administrative (any restaurant meeting the extensive application requirements would be automatically approved).
Instead of pre-approval community input, the program would depend on a strict enforcement system to weed out “bad operators.” The enforcement criteria would include:
- Enrollment in a special Monitoring, Verifications and Inspections Program
- Undergoing two unannounced inspections in three years
- Revocation of permission to sell alcohol after three “strikes” (defined as the issuing of an LADBS Order to Comply, or an LAPD citation filed with the LA Superior Court).
Timeline and Public Comment
Huffman said the next step in the approval process for the new program will be a hearing and possible vote at the City Planning Commission meeting tentatively scheduled for June 11. A staff report on the proposed ordinance will be available at least 72 hours before the meeting, at https://planning.lacity.org/about/commissions-boards-hearings.
After the City Planning Commission approves the plan, the proposal will move to the City Council for its committee hearings and votes, and finally a full Council approval vote. City officials have said previously that they would like to see the measure approved by the end of 2020, but its exact timeline will depend on the speed of the Planning Commission and City Council review, discussion and votes.
Also, while the new ordinance will not include public input for individual restaurant applications, there is plenty of opportunity for public input on this proposal that would create the new rules. Public comment will be heard at the June Planning meeting, and comments from groups and individuals are both welcome and encouraged between now and then. Comments can be sent to [email protected]
For more information about the proposed ordinance, see https://planning.lacity.org/plans-policies/proposed-land-use-regulations (and scroll down to Restaurant Beverage Program).
Update: On Tuesday, May 19, the Planning Department published a Supplemental Fact Sheet on the proposed Restaurant Beverage Program, listing listing the 50+ specific eligibility criteria, performance standards, and enforcement procedures outlined in the proposed ordinance. You can find the fact sheet here.