A balmy Friday evening late last month quickly turned cold for patrons of Caffe Bella.
“They took my glass of wine away from me and poured it in the gutter and pretty much terrorized everyone there,” said Randall Richman, co-owner of the Downtown Ventura wine bar.
Caffe Bella had been paid a surprise visit by three officers from local and state affiliates of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), the agency that enforces liquor licenses and ensures businesses that serve alcohol are up to code.
Richman and his wife, Ellen, primary owner of the popular downtown hot spot, contend they were forcefully “raided” that May night just after 10 p.m. They claim officers quietly entered the establishment, and posing as patrons, ordering drinks, abruptly halted the proceedings, forcing everyone in the establishment to pour out their drinks.
It was all over a misunderstanding, they say, over their cutoff time for serving alcohol dictated by their liquor license, which could have been rectified without an aggressive appearance by authorities.
“Bella’s a really mellow wine bar,” Ellen said, who described the incident as “over the top. You would have thought we had a brothel here and were selling drugs.”
“The problem with the ABC is a simple letter or message or phone call would have stopped 50 people from being terrorized that evening,” Randall says. “I thought my entertainer was going to have a heart attack.”
It’s because of the aggressive treatment that the Richmans says business there has taken a hit. The couple claims that it’s not just them, either. Following new city rules for entertainment permitting, and increased incidents of violence stemming
from the Ventura nightlife, restaurants and establishments that serve alcohol across downtown, say the Richmans, have been subjected to some unnecessary targeting and intense scrutiny from ABC officials.
They believe one of the reasons is their obligation to comply with a “50/50” rule dictating that businesses with certain liquor licenses must serve a proportionate amount of alcohol to food.
In the city of Ventura alone, according to John Carr, a spokesman for the state ABC in Sacramento, there are over 250 liquor-licensed locations; it was undetermined by deadline how many must follow the 50/50 rule.
“The general rule is that sales of alcohol should be secondary to the sale of food,” Carr says.
Ellen has called the guideline “archaic,” especially for bars in the downtown that will almost always offer more and sell more alcohol than food items. She wants to see the rule somehow updated or altered to reflect the tastes of the downtown demographic.
She also says the tip off to the May raid was because of another earlier unexpected visit by ABC officials for an audit of her sales receipts, which revealed that more alcohol at the café had been sold than food.
According to Richman, in 2008, she purchased $11,000 worth of food; $9,000 was sold. In comparison, that year Caffe Bella drew droves of wine patrons, where the bar received more than $41,000 — nearly five times more — in alcohol purchases by year end.
She named at least two other establishments had recently undergone the same treatment from ABC officials. When contacted, one bar/restaurant declined to comment, saying it could hurt their ongoing pursuit of new liquor licensing. Another Main Street bar/restaurant declined to comment, saying it could compromise business for them.
Other establishments said they haven’t had any problems with the ABC.
“We pretty much stick to the books,” said Matt Roe, a co-owner of Westside Cellar in Ventura.
Of course, it depends on the type of license a business has, the infraction that’s been alleged, and the nature of the complaint. Many visits from ABC officials, said Carr, come about from both anonymous tips and cooperative efforts from other business owners as part of a program they have called IMPACT.
Short for Informed Merchants Preventing Alcohol-Related Crimes and Tendencies, the program, according to Carr, allows anyone to alert the ABC if a business is making a violation. Decoy visits, like the one at Caffe Bella, are normal.
Lt. Quinn Fenwick of the Ventura Police Department, which employs one local ABC representative, backed up the group’s investigative procedures.
“We enforce even handedly,” Fenwick said. “We have a number of licensees and they have specific conditions. When we know there are violations, you will be visited.”
Wes Cooke, owner of Cooke’s Smokehouse on Main Street in Midtown Ventura, has said he hadn’t encountered any problems with the ABC, but could relate if downtown bars are receiving harsher treatments.
“I’ve heard crazy stories about downtown,” Cooke said. “My experience working in bars downtown, if somebody doesn’t like your music too loud, they complain, and you have to stop serving alcohol at 10 (p.m.) or some crazy limit.”
Ellen says bar owners in the downtown know the rules that they must follow, and hopes that the ABC will back off.
“They’re going around terrorizing businesses and trying to make an example out of us,” she says. “But they’re hurting us.”