When Angelo Vacco opened the Little Bar Lounge in April 2005, he inherited a beer and wine liquor license from the previous establishment, and thought that would be enough to realize his vision of a “Cheers”-style neighborhood bar. From the first day, however, customers started asking when he was going to serve vodka or whiskey.
“I thought it would just be a brew bar with beer and wine,” Vacco said. “But if I had a dollar for every time that someone asked me for a spirit…Not only have we lost so much business, but people say, ‘We love your bar but I don’t drink a lot of beer. If you just had vodka or Jack Daniels I’d be here more often.’ So it’s been in my head since day one that we needed a full liquor license in order to survive.”
Five years after he opened the bar — after sustaining losses in his first three years, and breaking even in the next two — Vacco is now trying to obtain a full liquor license. The long process, which Vacco said he expects to take at last a year-and-a-half, involves a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) from the City of Los Angeles; another from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC); and the purchase of a liquor license on the open market, which can cost up to $80,000.
To help navigate the first of these steps — the CUP — Vacco turned to Bill Bergstrom, principal of Wilshire Management Group. Bergstrom said applicants for CUPs usually wait six to nine months for a hearing with a Los Angeles Department of Planning zoning administrator, who decides to approve or deny the application. Despite filing an application in December, the Vacco is still waiting to find out when Little Bar’s hearing will be held.
“Any consultant or restaurant operator is going to tell you it takes too long,” Bergstrom said. “It’s intimidating for a lot of local operators to go through the process. A lot of people end up hiring expeditors to help them through it.”
While the Little Bar has waited for a hearing date, Bergstom has helped Vacco conduct a public relations campaign, holding meetings with resident associations, Los Angeles Police Department vice officers, and the Mid-City West Community Council (MCWCC).
Last week, the MCWCC’s Land Use Committee took up five applications for on-site (restaurants and bars) and off-site (retail stores) alcohol CUPs. The committee voted to support the Little Bar’s application, along with two applications from the Gilmore Land Company to operate at the corner of Third Street and Fairfax Avenue, and the sale of wine and beer at 88 Chinese & Sushi, an existing restaurant on Fairfax Avenue.
“In this economy, most restaurants without liquor licenses are really struggling,” said Jeff Jacobberger, chair of the MCWCC. “These businesses have been operating for some period of time now without any problems we’ve heard of, so we had a level of comfort in allowing them to move to a full liquor license.”
The committee’s recommendations will now go to the full MCWCC governing board, which will send its recommendation to the zoning administrator, as well as the local city council district office, which Jacobberger said often proved influential in the zoning administrator’s decision.
Even if Little Bar does obtain a CUP from the city, Vacco will then have to apply for a permit from ABC, which he expects will take an additional six months, during which time he will also try to obtain the liquor license itself.
Vacco needs a 41 license, which allows an establishment to serve liquor without also serving food. These licenses retail from anywhere between $40,000 and $80,000, and Vacco has taken out a small business loan to help cover the cost. He said he plans to go through a broker to help find an existing Los Angeles County business looking to sell its license.
“The lottery is a lot cheaper, but you have be one of the lucky twenty-five people out of five hundred or more who enter,” Vacco said. “I don’t know how long that’s going to take. I’d love to have a full liquor license by New Year’s, but I don’t know if that’s realistic, to be honest.”
While Vacco patiently joins the line of business operators waiting for a hearing with the zoning administrator, some members of the community are working to expedite the process.
Leron Gubler, president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, has met with city officials to advocate streamlining the process for renewing CUPS, which he said currently takes 18 months and costs upwards of $35,000, between city fees and the cost of an expeditor.
“The economic difficulty for businesses is immense,” Gubler said. “It’s clogging up the system and putting a burden on small businesses. What makes sense is to reward those businesses in compliance with CUP, and not put them through the same process as those who have caused problems. They’re down from eleven zoning administrators to just four. Why not cut through the red tape? That’s in everyone’s interest.”
Gubler has suggested that businesses that were able to obtain letters from local police and neighborhood councils affirming their compliance with their CUPs should be able to receive automatic renewal for an extended period of time.
The MCWCC Land Use Committee also voted last week to support the changes the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce has suggested. Gubler said that every city official he has met with also supports the idea. But a code amendment would take at least 18 months, especially with the city council preoccupied with trying to solve the budget crisis. Gubler said he is looking for ways to expedite that process as well.
Despite all the time and money involved, however, Vacco remains optimistic that his investment will eventually pay off.
“I never thought it would be so complicated, but I will say that everyone from the city to the neighborhood council to ABC seems to be working for the same goal,” Vacco said. “There are a lot of regulations, but everyone wants to see you in business, and they want businesses to do well. They’ve all been very helpful and forthcoming.”
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