Utah’s liquor control agency has started citing restaurants that serve alcoholic drinks to patrons before they order food.  The agency has shifted policy to now strictly interpret a key provision of Utah’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Act, which provides:

            A full-service restaurant licensee may not sell, offer for sale, or furnish an alcoholic product except in connection with an order for food prepared, sold, and furnished at the licensed premises.  U.C.A. Section 32B-6-205(8)(a) (2012).

Previously, the agency only required evidence of an intent to dine before wait staff could serve drinks to patrons.  It was not uncommon for customers to sip cocktails as they perused dinner menus or waited for a table.  Now, just in time for the Sundance Film Festival and Outdoor Retailer market, the agency is strictly interpreting and enforcing the statute’s provisions to require that restaurant patrons place a food order before being served an alcoholic beverages.  Restaurant owners who fail to abide by the new interpretation risk fines ranging from $500 to $3,000 and temporary license suspensions. The policy shift has led to a recent spate of enforcement actions and public outcry.

Several local restaurants have modified their serving practices in response.  Some establishments have adopted a conservative approach and are now refusing to serve drinks until food is served.   Others are serving drinks once an order for food is placed. Still others have adopted a more creative approach by adding new items, such as a variety of $1 amuse-bouches, which patrons can order together with drink orders. All of the approaches appear to comply with the new interpretation. Whether the agency’s policy shift will lead to legislative changes remains unclear, but at least one state legislator, Representative Gage Froerer, has indicated an interest in amending the statute to address this issue.