Viewpoint: Alcohol, Restaurants and Teens in the Palisades

For those who regularly attend Pacific Palisades Community Council (PPCC) meetings, the prolonged arguments about alcohol permits usually leave one feeling the need for a drink.

Since February 2016, every restaurant or fast-food place in the Palisades that wanted to sell beer and wine (Starbucks and Chipotle Mexican Grill) or expand its hours (Sam’s at the Beach) or add hard liquor (Sam’s, Kay ‘n Dave’s and Moku Sushi), has come before the PPCC to seek support for its Conditional Use Beverage application.

Why was Chipotle the only one of these businesses to be rejected by the council?

Let’s first discuss the economic issues at play here. Obviously, our local restaurants need to boost their revenues to offset higher employee costs (thanks to a steady rise in the minimum wage), but they also must improve their competitive position for when the restaurants open in Caruso’s Palisades Village next summer.

According to a February 2015 article in the Washington Post, “The restaurant industry is a place of razor-thin margins,” and “food in general is tough to make money on. Restaurants have long relied on the mark-up they tack onto drinks, not grub, to boost profits.”

Another article, in Restaurant Report, asks owners: “The food and drink is great, the service fabulous and the restaurant is busier than ever—but are you wondering why the bottom-line isn’t all it should be? Alcohol sales (beverage sales) are an easy way to increase profitability because the costs are lower and the gross margin for beverages is far greater for food.”

So, clearly there’s a lot at stake when restaurants ask to increase their beer, wine and liquor sales (and often their bar hours).

Valerie Sacks, who represented Chipotle at the July 27 community council meeting, admitted that selling beer at their tiny location on Sunset at Monument would yield only modest extra revenue, but it could help give them an edge on their fast-food rivals. (Beer with your Subway sandwich one day?)

What’s troublesome to us is why the PPCC refused to support Chipotle’s application. Why has the board helped other restaurants improve their bottom-line, while rejecting a chain restaurant that opened here in January?

Council President Maryam Zar provided an insight on August 5 when she told the News in an e-mail: “The emerging consensus seemed to have been that restaurants that are operated by the owners and have responsibly conducted themselves within the community for years, and are perceived as sit-down places of dining, where the restaurant owners are on-site, and seem to take pride in the neighborhood in which they operate, have our support; whereas perhaps fast-food or fast-stop (mart style) locations seeking to sell alcohol enjoy less unanimous support.”

A second factor working against Chipotle had to do with teenagers, who are always dragged into these debates about booze in family restaurants. Council members expressed concern that a patron might not finish his beer and would leave the bottle on the long communal table and a teen would snatch it and drink the last few (warm) swallows.

Members also worried about oversight. Even though the Chipotle representative said their associates go through extensive alcohol safety training and their stores have not had a problem, including the Westwood store near UCLA, the PPCC remained dubious.

In our experience with teenagers and drinking, the biggest problem is not establishments selling to underage youth or to teens with fake identification. A far greater problem is parents who fail to lock their liquor cabinets, or leave their supply unsupervised.

Why would underaged kids try to buy alcohol (or grab unfinished bottles of beer on the table at Chipotle) when there’s a nice selection at home? Or there’s an “open bar” at the home of your teenager’s friend?

In a 2015 Health magazine article (“5 Easy Ways Minors Get Alcohol”), the County of San Diego said the most common ways booze is acquired is “from friends or family members at parties, or by taking it without permission from home liquor cabinets. Almost 72 percent of teens who drink, get alcohol without having to pay for it.”

The News is not taking a position for or against liquor, in old or new establishments, but rather we’re tired of the argument that this is about keeping teens from alcohol. And we believe the community council acted unfairly by failing to support Chipotle. A lot of customers would enjoy having a beer with their burrito.

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