SALT LAKE CITY – Utah’s liquor board has scrapped a proposal requiring restaurants to get verbal confirmation that a customer ordering an alcoholic drink will pair it with a food order.
The Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission was considering the proposal to tell restaurants how to abide by one of Utah’s more restrictive liquor laws, which bars restaurants from serving alcohol without purchased food.
Utah’s Legislature tried to clarify the law earlier this year, saying alcoholic beverages can be served, as long as customers indicate they intend to dine as well.
The state alcohol commission had been weighing several proposals to define “intent to dine,” over the past month, but decided in late August that the proposals muddled the matter. The move leaves restaurants to decide for themselves how to establish a customer’s intent to order food.
Critics have said the proposals were silly and would create awkward situations for customers and servers.
Utah, where many legislators and residents are Mormons who abstain from alcohol, has relaxed some of its famously strict liquor laws in recent years.
The state still forbids restaurants from pouring alcohol in front of customers, which led to barriers known as “Zion Curtains,” a reference to Utah’s legacy as home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Lawmakers have said loosening restrictions further could increase underage drinking and drunken driving.
The law about drinking with food is one prong of that strategy, with lawmakers saying it keeps restaurants distinct from bars and their emphasis on alcohol.
In recent weeks, state liquor commissioners had been weighing five proposed drafts of a rule spelling out to establishments how to allow customers to have one drink once it is clear the guest will order food as well.
Several drafts of the rule required a verbal confirmation, while other proposals allowed guests to give a nonverbal confirmation, such as nodding their head or reviewing a food menu.
“The rules are trying to help, but I’m not sure that they don’t just confuse it more,” Commissioner Constance White said Tuesday.
Commissioner John T. Nielsen suggested scrapping the proposals, saying at this point, restaurants already understand they can’t serve alcohol without a food order.
“I think the industry does a really good job of self-policing there,” Nielsen said.
Tanner Lenart, an attorney who represents about half a dozen Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants in Utah, said after Tuesday’s meeting that she’s “cautiously optimistic” about the board’s decision to abandon the proposals.
“There’s always the concern this will be a learn-as-you-go thing, now that we don’t have a rule telling us what is allowed,” she said.
Lenart said she agrees with commission members that the industry does a good job regulating itself on the issue.
“Let’s just let the statute stand by itself and let the restaurants determine how best to deal with it, and I think they will,” Nielsen said after the meeting.
The Utah Restaurant Association plans to put together some guidelines for its members on the best practices to comply with the law, said Melva Sine, president and CEO of the Utah Restaurant Association.
The association had concerns about the various proposals, and confirming a patron’s intent to dine is awkward and unnecessary, Sine said.
“We’re kind of pushing people’s buttons when we have to run them through some silly question like, ‘You intend to dine?’ Obviously, if they’re coming in the restaurant, they intend to dine,” she said.
She likened it to buying a car and having the seller ask if you intend to drive it, or an airline asking someone purchasing a ticket if they intend to fly.
Utah restaurants are required to make 70 percent of their profits from food sales, so they will be distinct from bars whether or not they confirm guests want to order food, she said.
“We’re dealing with adults,” Sine said. “They should be able to have a beverage of their choice in a restaurant, without all of these little side things that make everybody uncomfortable.”