DNA Lounge had been lying fallow for years, so I began the process of buying and revitalizing the place. This took, all told, almost exactly four years from when I made my first offer to when we opened for business in July 2001. That included six months of political battles to allow the transfer of the operating permits, followed by a year-and-a-half-long multi-million-dollar remodeling project. (We only had to do that much remodeling because of new requirements that were being imposed on us during the transfer of permits. Had DNA's previous owners simply continued operating, they wouldn't have had to spend a dime, but because I bought the existing business, the city forced me to spend a fortune before I could even open the doors.)
Fast forward six years, and we're still here... but remember that original goal, the live music? Well, we don't really do very much live music. It averages out to around three live shows a month, and that's counting the "house bands" at Bootie at Bohemian Carnival.
The reason we do so little live music is that we're a 21-and-over venue, and, it turns out, it's really, really hard to book bands in such a venue. Successful live music venues are 18+ or all-ages. That's because the unforunate demographic fact is that the people who attend live shows are in the 18-to-25 age bracket, heavily skewed toward the lower end. For many bands, performing at an 18+ venue instead of a 21+ venue will double or triple the attendance. And their booking agents know that, so a lot of agents won't even talk to 21+ venues.
And that's why, despite the fact that our finances are tight, we spent another small fortune this year to build a kitchen. (As I explained earlier, all under-21 concert venues in California are technically restaurants, so food is a prerequisite.)
With construction on our kitchen complete, last month we finally pulled the trigger on our plan to go all ages: we went down to the ABC and filled out the paperwork to convert our Type 48 ("bar") liquor license into a Type 47 ("restaurant") liquor license.
(It turns out that there are 340 residences within 500 feet of our building. I know this because we spent an evening stuffing envelopes and sticking labels to mail them all notification of our permit application: a letter saying, basically, "KICK ME".)
A few days later, we had a meeting with the SFPD officers responsible for permitting to discuss our license application. We showed them our kitchen, and they said, basically, "What's this tiny thing! This is a joke! This doesn't look like a restaurant!" We said, "Hey, we're not trying to be Denny's, we're trying to be Slim's", and pointed out to them the obvious fact that there are a bunch of all-ages concert venues in this city (off the top of my head: Slim's, Great American Music Hall, Bottom of the Hill, Cafe du Nord, Bimbo's, Glas Kat, The Warfield, The Filmore, City Nights, and I'm sure I've forgotten a bunch) and we just want to do the exact same thing that those places do: live music, while serving meals.
This was not a pleasant meeting. Every time we tried to talk about specifics, they'd bob-and-weave from one complaint to another: they'd say, "Your kitchen is too small!" and we'd say, "No it's not, we can serve a totally reasonable volume of food from there." Then they'd respond, "But there will be under-aged kids drinking!" And we'd try to talk about our security plan and how we are going to prevent that, and then without missing a beat, they'd switch right back to, "But this doesn't look like a restaurant!"
They were basically unwilling to discuss it at all. I hoped they'd be reasonable about it, but I didn't really expect that at all. They have no incentive to say "yes" to us, so why would they? It doesn't benefit them. It would be fine with SFPD if this city had no bars or nightclubs at all; the Chamber of Commerce might have a problem with that, but it would make SFPD's job easier if everyone just stayed home.
Liquor licenses are issued by ABC, a state agency. But they always ask the local authorities for their opinion before issueing a permit, which in this case is SFPD. And, predictably, SFPD's recommendation was... not. This letter from ABC arrived a few days ago:
From: State of California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control
The purpose of this letter is to advise you of the status of your pending type-47 application. Please be advised that we have received protests regarding your business plan, the most important from the San Francisco Police Department, asking that we deny your application for a type-47 license. Normally, the SFPD Vice Unit will suggest various Conditions that they believe will mitigate any circumstances arising from the premises operation. However, in this case, they have recommended a simple denial. After discussing it at length with the SFPD officer in charge of permits, it is quite clear that they do not want any changes in your establishment that will result in allowing patrons under the age of twenty-one to enter and/or remain on the premises.
I am continuing my investigation of your application and will keep you apprised of any developments. Of course, it is very rare that we decide to contradict the San Francisco Police Department on matters such as these. At the very least, you should expect the processing of this application to take considerably longer than the three to four months normally allowed for this type of application.
Considering the aforementioned developments, it may be in your best interests to withdraw your application. This will prevent an Administrative Hearing, as well as eliminating the possibility of having a formal department denial in your file. I have included a Withdrawal form, should you decide this is in your best interests.
That says, "SFPD said 'no way', so you should give up. Here's the form to fill out to give up."
Our next step is to figure out how to cause SFPD's recommendation to ABC to be different. We're still working out the details on how exactly to do that, but apparently it's time to lawyer up. Again.
What a gigantic pain in the ass.