18-Apr-2007 (Wed)
Wherein SFPD says "no live music for you."

As many of you who have been following along from the beginning are aware, the reason I bought this nightclub was to support live music. By 1998, many nightclubs had closed, and there were very few small-to-medium-sized venues left that were pleasant places to see a live show.

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

Dear Applicants,

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.

48 Responses:

  1. ctd says:

    Fuckers!

    Have you asked Slim's et al how they gamed this stupid system?

    • jwz says:

      I know how they did it -- they've had their permit for ~25 years, and back then, nobody gave a shit.

  2. alisgray says:

    wow. who do you know who's running for office?

    I saw Nina Hagen at the DNA, even though I live in Minneapolis. It was one of the best live shows I have ever seen. Do not give up!

  3. tiff_seattle says:

    Seattle is modeling its new nightlife ordinance on San Francisco's policies. I fully expect to see the same amount of BS for new or changing clubs here too.

  4. justmealex says:

    Wow that's crap, definitely time to lawyer up.

  5. whittles says:

    poop on a stick!

  6. king_mob says:

    Christ, that's depressing.

  7. xinit says:

    I thought Vancouver, BC was a pain in the ass for licensing, but looks like you've got them beat in San Francisco.

    I didn't catch if there was a community response; is it even remotely possible to have the neighbours on your side and show support for the lounge? Or are you seen localy as merely sacrificing the souls of the city's virginal youth to the Great Beast?

  8. Fuck, Jamie. I am so sorry. What a colossal PITA.

    Thanks for continuing to fight. It's appreciated.

    • whittles says:

      I want to second this thank you, and also xinit's question - anyway community support can be rallied in this one?

      • jwz says:

        We're still trying to figure out what the best approach is. It's differently-complicated than last time, since now a state agency is involved instead of just city.

  9. kraquehaus says:

    Thank you for fighting the good fight. Seriously. Thank you.

  10. mauitian says:

    Convert the new kitchen to a lab for producing really good fake ID's.

    :D

  11. drkscrtlv says:

    Curious as to whether the exhaust hood would do anything to change their minds... as in, if there were some investor willing to pay for the exhaust hood, and if you were willing to go through the added hassle of contractors and inspections for however many more months it would take to install it / inspect it / fix it / inspect it again, would the presence of grease on the menu help overcome the physical size of the kitchen in the eyes of the SFPD?

  12. ding_0_ says:

    Huh, I guess that was some guy in a closet magicking up food when I played at DNA. I thought I got a tasty fajita from the kitchen but I was wrong.

  13. kfringe says:

    "What's this tiny thing! This is a joke! This doesn't look like a restaurant!"

    The appropriate response is, "we have contracted kitchen staffing out to recognized experts in the field."

    • baconmonkey says:

      The current chef is either 4'11" or 5'0", so it's not that far off.

    • netsharc says:

      Why not rent some tables and chairs and turn the place into a restaurant for the one time those... those *ahem* inspectors are there?

      "This look like a restaurant to you now..?"

      Good luck, if it doesn't work out there's still the computer industry out there for you.

      • belgand says:

        Probably still wouldn't work. When Goat Hill Pizza opened up a new location in SoMa I stopped by and found a place that looked like a club that wasn't yet open for the night. Turns out this is because it was exactly that, a club where they had set up a few tables. We were the only people in a dark, cavernous environment. There wasn't so much a waitstaff as club employees who were just sort of hanging around before the night really started.

        Basically they attempted to make a club kinda into a restaurant and it instead fell into a sort of uncanny valley.

        • netik says:

          But they succeeded, though.

          That old space was 'City Nights', where Roderick's Chamber was once held.

          They were serving food in the club for a long time prior to Goat Hill Pizza's arrival, and I can't remember if they were 18+ back then or 21+.

  14. pushupstairs says:

    man, that is total horseshit.

  15. tjcrowley says:

    The amusing thing is that the Rickshaw Stop has a smaller setup than yours and they have the 18+ permit. Guess it pays to be grandfathered in.

    I still maintain that you haven't bribed the right people.

    • gnat23 says:

      Time to fire up the time machine, go back 25 years, get the permit, and PROFIT.

      Seriously. This is what sucks about trying to do things the right way through all the official channels. I'm going to buy a bunch of pinstripe suits and we can sell hitmen contracts out the back. I know it doesn't solve the live music problem, but hey it sounds fun and dangerous nonetheless.

  16. 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.

    This is near-infinitely easier said than done, of course, but perhaps this means the solution is to work through the Chamber of Commerce, and see if they can "work with" SFPD on the issue.

  17. ladykalessia says:

    So, is it letter-writing campaign time yet?

    Or showing-up-at-City-Hall-en-masse time?

    Sorry, I'm showing my Santa Cruz roots, damn.

  18. keimel says:

    But you're in super liberal land where they know better what is good and bad for you.

    You shall accept this decision, as your government knows better.

    (or you could try a different location)
    (or you could try whining and dining them)

    • Oh, of course, you'd have much easier luck getting DNA set up for all-ages in Kentucky.

      Sorry to hear of your troubles, JWZ. May your success be imminent and your legal fees be low.

      • In VA you would, actually. Under VA law there is no distinction between "bar" and "restaurant". This means that all places that serve alcohol for on-premesis consumption must serve meals, but legally an Irish pub, a 50's diner serving beer, a "family" restaurant like Applebees, and a nightclub that does not sell memberships (as that would be a "club" if they did) are treated as the same.

        There are different permits for beer/wine and spirits, however.

        • jhf says:

          And food must represent half your costs (or maybe it's more), so if you sell more alcohol than food, you have to buy a bunch of food every month and basically give it away.

  19. Massive lossage. Sorry to hear that -- I always try to point people I know going to SF to whatever is happening at the DNA, just did that this morning, actually.

    I'll buy some swag from the DNA online store now to assuage my conscience and feelings of powerlessness over The Man.

  20. roach2600 says:

    Anyone we can lobby for you?

  21. jesus_x says:

    Well, I may be 2700 miles away, but I still think what you're doing is important. Keep fighting, amazingly, it is worth it if only to keep Big Mother from encroaching on every aspect of our lives that might be fun.

  22. ammonoid says:

    That sucks! I couldn't eat the food you served because it seemed heavily cheese-based, but I supported in principle. I also supported by buying lots of beer.

    • ceaderwin says:

      oops, just realized that was the same link that you posted back in feb... no wonder I thought of you when I saw it :P

  23. wetzel says:

    that royally sucks, thanks for putting up a fight!

    now it's a race to see whether I can turn 21 before DNA becomes 18+ . . .

  24. nomenklatura says:

    I've enjoyed following your troubles at the DNA all the way from London for some time now. One day I plan to visit, and I hope things will still be going strong then. All the best.

  25. wfaulk says:

    I continue to be totally amazed at your inability to have live shows. Here in the RTP area of NC, we have a good number of live venues that seem to be constantly booked, and I believe that they are 21+, based on the fact that I occasionally see shows listed as "all-ages". (Or used to, this may have changed, but the scene hasn't, really.)

    I think I've asked this before, but is the problem that there are too many live venues splitting the talent, the DNA isn't well-regarded as a live music venue, not enough people want to see live music in San Francisco, or what?

    • gryazi says:

      In some (many? most?) jurisdictions, you have to lock up or at least concertedly restrict the booze for an all-ages event.

      Thus, those venues would have to be 'all-ages certified' as a prerequisite, but don't bother for most acts when the booze brings in more revenue than warm bodies.

      Either that or they just sneak the occasional show in and hope no one notices.

  26. n_by_nw says:

    You should write a (pseudo-fictional) book. Between this permit stuff and the [REDACTED] it would be quite a read.

  27. bifrosty2k says:

    What a bunch of whiny bitches.

    This is The Nannystate in action...

  28. wesolows says:

    The SFPD should be disbanded. They serve no useful purpose (witness complete inability to prevent or investigate crimes), and as far as I can tell exist solely to tell everyone not to do things that are perfectly legal and sensible (such as use a public sidewalk, board a public bus, or obtain a license which is permitted by state law). As far as I'm concerned the Supervisors should shut down the department and send all of their employees to the fucking bread line where they belong. Cops are just criminals by another name, anyway. Within 3 months they'd be felons, and hopefully the rest of us would have shot them all dead in self-defense.

    I hope you sue the shit out of them and win. Bankrupt the worthless shitbag pigs for all of us.

  29. boonedog says:

    Ugh. I thought Seattle was a pain in the ass when it comes to clubs.

    Hmmm ... I know a handful of promoters up here in Seattle and the majority of their bookings are in our overly-abundant 21+ clubs. We have far less all-ages clubs than bars that play live music. And 21+ clubs like the Tractor and the High Dive get huge turn-outs up here. Do you think the demographic of folks who go to shows is that much different in our two cities? I will ask one of the promoters at Nada Mucho what he thinks about that and how to tap into the 21+ market for live music.