Leader Blues

Friday, December 19, 2008

TOP STORY > >Cabot eatery serving liquor

Leader staff writer

“We got it. Free memberships available at the door,” reads the cryptic sign that went up outside Fat Daddy’s on Hwy. 367 in Cabot Wednesday afternoon.

Designed to adhere to the letter of the law that says no advertising is allowed, the sign tells customers of the six-month-old restaurant known for its Delta-raised catfish and deep-fried dill pickles that they can now have beer and wine with their meals.

“It” is the private club liquor license the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board issued Wednesday that allows the restaurant to serve alcohol in a dry county.

And although many who see the sign likely don’t understand it, at least 1,000 area residents do, because they signed the petition that restaurant owners Kevin and Karen Elrod took with them to the ABC Board.

Fat Daddy’s is the second restaurant in Cabot to be approved for a license to sell alcohol. Kopan, a relatively new restaurant serving sushi as well as other Japanese and Korean foods, got its license in October. Although Mayor Eddie Joe Williams and some church leaders opposed that application, Kopan owners had the signatures of more than 1,000 customers who supported it.

Until those two licenses were approved, only members of Cabot’s two country clubs could buy alcoholic beverages with their meals.

The mayor and Cabot Police Chief Jackie Davis attended the Wednesday meeting of the ABC Board to speak against Fat Daddy’s application.

The mayor told the board that even without restaurants serving alcohol in Cabot, sobriety checkpoints net so many drunk drivers that they can only stay open about two hours before the jail is full and all the police officers are occupied with paperwork.

But Elrod says the state laws that he must comply with won’t let him serve alcohol without food. And in his opinion, the sobriety checkpoints are catching drunks leaving bars in Little Rock, not diners who wanted a beer or wine with their steak or fish.

With the exception of a handful of country clubs, selling alcoholic beverages in Lonoke County has been illegal for more than seven decades, but changes made in recent years to state liquor laws to promote tourism and economic development now allow restaurants open to the public to sell alcohol even in the dry counties. So far, three restaurants have been approved in

Lonoke County and one more has applied.
In addition to Kopan and Fat Daddy’s, a liquor license has been granted to a planned restaurant in Ward, contingent on its actually being built.

That license has been appealed to circuit court in Pulaski County. Also in Cabot, Deer Creek Grill, which also has not been built, has applied for a license.

The wet/dry issue was decided in Lonoke County on Dec. 14, 1937 by the majority of 1,160 voters who turned out for the special election. Of that number, 328 voted to continue selling alcohol, and 832 voted to ban it.

By state law, for voters to have a say in the matter today would require a petition containing the verified signatures of 38 percent of the county’s registered voters. Since Lonoke County has 36,534 registered voters, 13,883 signatures would be needed to get the issue on the ballot in November 2010.

That number is so great in Lonoke County as well as the other dry counties that make up about half the state that taking the issue to a vote today would be nearly impossible. But instead of upholding the wishes of the majority who voted much of the state dry decades ago, those who are opposed to public restaurants getting private club liquor licenses say state lawmakers have found a way to subvert county law.

“Do you think Chile’s in Jacksonville is a private club?” asks Barry Ammon, a businessman from Ward who, through the Citizens for Sound Government, is fighting the liquor license issued to Win Knight for the restaurant he plans to build in Ward.

“The law has been subverted or perverted to help private business,” Ammon said.

The Citizens for Sound Govern-ment is a group whose membership changes with the issues they are dealing with, but always includes former state Rep. Randy Minton, who is known for his conservative values. The group is part of the beginnings of a coalition of organizations from across the state that is calling the changes in the state liquor laws unconstitutional. And, according to Ammon those changes are “so convoluted that they defy interpretation by the average person.”

In Cabot last week, representatives from groups from DeQueen, Jonesboro, Conway and Heber Springs, who feel like Ammon, argued that the new state laws are a way to get around county voters.

“What we’re trying to do is put together a coalition statewide, be-cause we don’t feel like we’re going to get anywhere with the ABC Board,” Ammon said.

The board grants licenses to restaurant owners who have filled out the forms correctly, he said. Although the law places restrictions on the restaurants, such as requiring customers to show membership cards before they are served, there is no evidence that the law is enforced, he said.

Mayor Williams agrees that enforcement is lax. “I’ve been to some of those restaurants and they don’t ask me for identification. They show me the wine list,” he said.

And like Ammons he says the changes in the liquor laws are drafted in such a way that communities can’t fight them, so at the very least they should be enforced.

“All I’m asking is for them to enforce the laws they’ve enacted,” he said.

Two days into running a Cabot eatery with a license to sell liquor, Kevin Elrod said business is good and he is following all the rules. Like the sign says, memberships are free. With his system, customers get a card with a stub. The customer keeps half and Fat Daddy’s keeps half and customers must sign in and show their cards at the door.

The restaurant closes at 9 p.m., and since he won’t serve alcohol without food, his customers shouldn’t be driving home drunk, he said.

Judging from the number of customers who signed his petition, Elrod says there is a demand with restaurants that serve alcohol.

“Colton’s is here in town but to get a steak, we go to Little Rock. The guys want a beer with their steaks and their wives like a glass of wine,” he said.

Elrod, who like most residents moved to Cabot for the schools, said he thinks Cabot people should spend their money at home.

“I’m not trying to push any morals on anyone; I’m just trying to keep people in town,” he said.