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Prospects for happy hour make Gainesville restaurant owners thirsty for business

POSTED: July 22, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS /The Times

Tony Driskell pours a drink at the bar Thursday afternoon at Scott's on the Square in downtown Gainesville. A change in the city's alcoholic beverage ordinances may bring happy hour to Gainesville restaurants.

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Local restaurateurs say it’s about time for happy hour in Gainesville.

Along with a list of changes that will align the city’s alcoholic beverage ordinances with recently passed state laws, the City Council has charged city staff with finding a way to allow restaurants to sell alcohol at discounted prices during certain hours.

And less prohibitions are just what the owners of two downtown restaurants say Gainesville needs when it comes to getting rid of their patrons’ inhibitions.

Scott’s on the Square owner Scott Dixon plans to take advantage of an afternoon "happy hour" if the City Council allows one. Discounted drink hours would help Dixon build his clientele base, attracting the "target market" that he has not been able to draw in with other promotions, he said.

"It just allows restaurants, especially in this time and this economy, to do a service for the customer, and it helps bring in business for us," Dixon said.

Scott’s on the Square offers patrons more than 80 choices of wine, and Dixon said he is looking forward to the pending abatement of other alcoholic beverage rules that prevent patrons from taking home unfinished bottles of wine from the restaurant.

The city’s ordinance has forced Dixon’s customers to leave behind anywhere from $5 to $100 worth of unconsumed wine, he said.

Those not willing to waste the leftovers sometimes drink too much.

"Not having this "merlot-to-go" law, it really forces people to drink more than they would normally drink, because they want to consume what they’ve paid for," Dixon said.

Mary Margaret Calvert, co-owner of Seabones restaurant, said, if allowed, she probably would have discounted drink hours.

But Calvert is more excited about Gainesville’s move to loosen its alcoholic beverage restrictions than the idea of serving two-for-one drinks.

Calvert, who opened Seabones in October 2006, said that the city’s proposed plans to prorate alcoholic beverage licensing fees is a step in the right direction when it comes to being small-business friendly.

If the proposed changes pass next month, the city will charge half the yearly licensing fees to those seeking alcoholic beverage licenses after July 1. Currently, applicants for alcoholic beverage licenses must pay the fees for an entire year even if they receive their licenses one month before the license expires on Dec. 31.

"I purchased my restaurant in October, which means I had to pay close to $5,000 for a liquor license for three months," Calvert said. "I thought it was absurd."

Calvert said the current ordinance could keep restaurant owners from opening their businesses until the beginning of the year, and Dixon said it did make him wait to get his license for Scott’s on the Square.

"I would have actually purchased a liquor license in the second half of the year if some sort of proration would have been available," Dixon said. "Otherwise, I would have paid for one that would have been good a total of 20 days."

Calvert said she hopes that since City Council members are considering allowing "happy hour" in Gainesville that soon, they will also consider loosening a rule that requires at least 50 percent of an establishment’s sales to come from food in order to serve alcohol, and another rule that alcohol only can be served on a patio if it is covered.

"When a small-business owner has much less governmental restrictions and more options, the better off everybody is," Calvert said.

City officials still are mulling over how they can go about allowing "happy hour" without increasing the number of alcohol-related traffic accidents.

Council members might not allow discounted drink hours late at night.

Both Calvert and Dixon say that they are more interested in having discounted drink hours that attract the "after-work crowds" from 4 to 7 p.m. than late at night.

But they say it should be the business owner’s decision, not the city’s, on when to let customers get happy.

"I think having a drink special from 10 to 12 is not the time to have it," Dixon said. "I also don’t know if there should be prohibitions on when you can and can’t have it.

"Most people should be able to make that determination and be responsible. Less prohibitions are better."



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