How Has TABC Screwed You Lately?

Tales from the front lines of the Austin entertainment industry


TABC Chairman Kevin J. Lilly (l), Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and TABC Executive Director Bentley Nettles (r) admiring a pair of antique firearms from Patrick's collection (Image via www.tabc.state.tx.us)

How do TABC's regulations and operations impact specific roles in Austin's alcohol industry? How could they do better? We asked local constituents to speak anonymously about the agency that governs them.

The Bar Owner

Bars exist in purgatory. It's legal for us to sell liquor and beer to people, but it's criminal for them to be intoxicated. The bar sits in the middle of those two needs.

So here we are with this control agency that, for most of its time, has not been checked, and comes from a conservative agenda of protecting the good people of Texas from retailers. Those rules are called "dram shop laws." Unfortunately, those laws are really gray and subjective in the ways they are both written and enforced.

Let's say you have six bartenders working and 300 people in the room. It's now impossible to keep track of how much they've all had to drink. The only metric you have of whether they've had too much to drink is visual: Are they slurring? Are their eyes glossed over? But some people can hold their shit together, drink all night, and you can't tell until something happens.

Where it gets really gray is when you have to decide whether they reached the point of intoxication because of medication or even their emotional state. Austin also has a lot of districts where people are walking from bar to bar, which makes it even harder. However someone crosses that line, the bar becomes responsible. A business can get their license pulled if someone who'd been drinking there gets in an accident.

Along with overserving, TABC can pop you for underage drinking, and they can pop you for serving more than four drinks at a time – if you go get a round for your buddies, that's actually illegal. My personal experience of being regulated by them has been scary. TABC can solicit information in a criminal investigation without telling you what you're being investigated for.

These agencies would be better regulated by the city, not the state. Let's say it was run by a branch of Austin's Police Department: That puts the weight of the infraction in context of the city. If you're an officer and you see the entire spectrum of criminality, you're not going to punish a small business for thousands of dollars because someone was served more than four beers.

When you deal with TABC agents, the first thing out of their mouths is the threat: "I'm going to shut you down." It doesn't end there – it starts there. The city government wouldn't let that fly, beating up small businesses so hard.

The Retail Vendor

TABC has a 9-liter minimum for delivery that creates daily problems for me. Bars will order 8½ liters, and we can't send it out until I can contact them and get them to change their order. Some tiny coffee shop bar that happens to sell a little bit of liquor – they don't need 10 bottles of booze delivered at once. It also comes up when a bar is having an event that they need to get three special bottles of tequila for; they can't get it delivered unless they add a bunch of extra inventory. Getting rid of any minimum delivery for liquor would be incredibly beneficial for retailers and businesses.

Another big issue for me is TABC's laws on returns. If a bar ordered (or was delivered) the wrong thing, there's only a 24-hour window that I legally have to get that bottle picked up and returned. Outside of that, TABC could fine [my business] or the bar. There's no reason for it to be that short.

We also have problems with TABC's past-due list [Ed. note: required by the "credit law"]. All payments are due on the 10th and 25th of each month, and there's generally a 3-4 day grace period. After that, they're on that list and can't order alcohol from anyone. If someone incorrectly writes a check that's short $1 and I don't catch it, they'll go on the list until they settle what's owed.

Vendors, not TABC, should be able to choose who goes on that list. I have accounts spend several hundred thousand dollars with me, and sometimes they miss one invoice and they go on that list. Then they can't order any more booze. It should be up to the people who are literally selling it.

The Venue Owner

I don't have anything terrible to say about TABC. They've never shut me down during a show, and they've been patient on the rare occasions I've been late on my liquor taxes. On the other hand, the three-tier system we have in Texas creates ­barriers for us to have healthy sponsorship relationships with liquor brands, which would help subsidize our costs.

Most places nationally, there are ways for a venue and a liquor brand to have that relationship. In Texas, it's seen as tacitly endorsing drinking. You can't advertise a brand at the venue or bar level because there's so much uncertainty.

Technically, Tito's could probably sponsor an event and I could send them an invoice for a rental fee and the artist budget and they could pay it and it would be legal, but they won't do that because they're afraid of TABC and the unpredictable way that they enforce. So instead of contracting with them directly, you have to have either a nonprofit or a third-party distributor. What ends up happening is that most of the money ends up getting eaten up by middlemen. None of it is getting in the pockets of artists or venue owners. It's going to a marketing agency or the marketing division of the distributor.

The Bar Manager

The stings (for underage drinking and over-serving) are what you worry about, but TABC can also start looking at you for things out of your control, like if you call the police because of a fight. Once TABC notices you, they really look at you, and nobody wants that. Their attitude is: "We can fuck you if we want to. Don't make us want to." They'll fine you for the tiniest things, like there being only half a sticker on your bottle because other bottles clanked into it, or having less than an ounce left in a bottle – which is actually illegal.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

TABC, Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, dram shop, credit law, delivery minimum, overserving, three tier, license sticker

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