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Monitoring bistros important year around

Over the 17 years since Birmingham developed and implemented its bistro liquor license ordinance, it has become a not only a runaway success in the city, creating small yet diverse dining establishments which have succeeded its primary intention – activating the city's streets in order to generate foot traffic in areas where they are, driving people to the local retailers and merchants. In fact, the ordinance is such a success, it is the model of other similar local ordinances that have been developed in the years since Birmingham started this, with other municipalities around the country replicating it.

Bistros haven't been around forever. In 2007, Birmingham created a bistro liquor ordinance with the goal of invigorating Birmingham's streets.

The current ordinance permits unique restaurants to obtain a liquor license if they have no more than 65 seats, including 10 at the bar, and low key entertainment only, for a small fraction of the cost of a traditional Class C liquor license. The bistro regulations adopted also included requirements for storefront glazing, seating along the storefront windows, and a requirement that mandates a certain size of outdoor dining. The city commission approves the concept for each bistro license to be given out, with no more than two bistro licenses approved each year, with the exception of two additional licenses for establishments which have been in business for at least five years in the city in their same location.

Since its inception, the bistro ordinance has been a huge success, doing just what it was intended – it has revitalized the downtown retail area of Birmingham, and the outdoor dining patios have become a destination for the metro area. Pedestrian foot traffic increased exponentially following the opening of bistros such as Toast, Townhouse, Luxe, Bella Piatti and numerous others.

Every February, the city commission reviews all of the city's liquor licenses for renewal; as part of the process, city employees review issues regarding the establishments, which can include outstanding taxes and bills, as well as infractions such as too many seats at bistros – which has been a repeat issue at several of the bistros. For some of the restaurants, such as Toast, Bistro Joe's and Market, it has been a bone of contention quite a few times.

We are referring to bistros having more than their permitted number of seats – 55 in the restaurant and 10 at the bar, as well as a certain formula for outdoor dining. While it may seem petty to some diners or even to the restaurateurs, it is a major concern because of demands on the establishment's infrastructure, from the kitchen, staff and restrooms, to concerns over mobility on the sidewalks and the city's infrastructure.

Bistros, while they appear as full restaurants, have paid $20,000 for their liquor license, versus over $500,000 or more for a full Class C liquor license, which puts no restrictions on seating and hours. If it appears there is an imbalance, there is – and it is a costly one to the Class C liquor license holders. Hence the regulations that accompany issuance of liquor permits to bistros.

We praise the city's enforcement unit during renewal time. It's easy for restaurateurs to get careless with seating and other issues. But monitoring of compliance with the rules must be a year-around effort, not just at license renewal times.


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