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Game Over: Liquor Branch Unplugs Another Small Biz

First the Rio Theatre, now a video gamer's restaurant and bar trapped by BC gov't laws.

By Peter Tupper 21 Jun 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Peter Tupper writes about culture and technology for The Tyee and others. Find his previous Tyee articles here.

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Gamer's paradise EXP Restaurant and Bar caught within B.C.'s licensing labyrinth. Photo via Shutterstock.

For Brian Vidovic, playing video games has always been a social activity. Since his teens, he's enjoyed playing multi-player games with his buddies, snacking, drinking cola, "just enjoying people."

"I always thought to myself, what if we had a paid-type setting where we could do this?" he says.

Vidovic kept that idea in mind while studying video games and working for Radical Entertainment, a video game developer, for three years. And finally last year he and his partners put together a plan for EXP Restaurant and Bar, a 2,700 square foot space on Pender Street in downtown Vancouver, where patrons could enjoy food and liquor service while playing multi-player, split-screen games on the free consoles at their tables.

With Vancouver's strong video game industry and fandom, it seemed like a solid business. After getting the lease on the space in July 2011 and navigating the usual permit and renovation process, Vidovic and his partners were all set to open.

But they soon hit a wall, when BC's Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (LCLB) refused them a liquor license unless they removed the video game consoles from their tables. To Vidovic, it was yet another example of the branch's arbitrary and outdated regulations, and resistance to appeals and reviews.

"They know it's not gambling, and they don't care. They're sticking to another archaic law, a single line in a policy that needs to be updated and revised heavily," he says.

It's a story that recalls Vancouver's Rio Theatre, which earlier this year fought to change the branch’s decision about its liquor license. While that venue was successful, Vidovic's battle continues.

Restrictions 'so irrelevant': Vidovic

EXP is intended to be an adult establishment where people can play console games at their tables with full food and liquor service. This differs from restaurant chains like Dave & Buster's, where stand-up arcade games are located in an area separate from dining tables. Similar businesses operate in other countries, such as Kyoto Lounge in England and Pakistan, Mana Bar in Brisbane, Australia, Ground Control in Portland, Oregon, and AFK Tavern in Everett, Washington.

The LCLB moved to deny EXP a food-primary liquor license unless they removed their table game consoles, essentially forcing them to choose between two different licenses -- liquor-primary and food-primary -- neither of which allow them to have the game consoles that are fundamental to their business.

"In a food primary, you're not allowed to have arcade machines or pool hall stuff with alcohol anywhere near it. You have to section it off into a different area of the space," Vidovic explains. "We could have done that. We could have thrown all our games in the corner, but that's an incredible compromise of our vision. It's not the idea. We didn't want people to be standing all the time and playing."

A statement from a spokesperson from the Ministry of Energy and Mines and Responsible for Housing, which oversees the LCLB, says the condition of no gaming consoles was placed on the licence to ensure the owner is clear on what is permitted in a food-primary establishment.

"In a food primary establishment, the focus at all times needs to be food. The applicant is not applying for the appropriate type of licence for the type of entertainment he wants to offer his patrons. This restriction is not in place for liquor-primary licences -- and that is the appropriate type of licence for what he is proposing."

Vidovic calls the condition "so irrelevant in the grand scheme of things."

"We brought up the idea of, 'What about hockey games and stuff?' 'Well, that's different.' 'How is it different?' 'Well, it just is.' They have nothing written about it. They have board games and card games, and that's the kind of thing that they're referring to."

Not just kids' play

Section 11.1.4 of the LCLB's Licensing Policy Manual states that in liquor-primary establishments, "video arcade games and movies may be offered for patron entertainment, provided they do not shift the focus of the establishment to that of a video arcade or a movie theatre." EXP's table consoles would shift it into the video-game arcade classification, so the venue would be denied a license. The LCLB's website specifically says that video-game arcades are not eligible for liquor-primary licenses.

Vidovic says this is based on an outmoded idea that video games are primarily the recreation of minors.

"It was deemed however many years ago that arcades are for children, and if you want to license it you're encouraging underage drinking. That is the best example I have of how old this law is. Average age of a gamer is 34, not 15. People have grown up with games. Now it is adult entertainment, and it could be for anyone, young or old."

He describes the LCLB's policy as "control first and punish later," cutting off businesses at the proposal stage instead of allowing businesses to experiment and penalizing them if there are problems. Attempts to get the branch to change their ruling proved fruitless.

"The actual employees [of the liquor board] and the people that I talked to were very nice and very sympathetic. They basically agreed with me that the laws are archaic -- and those were their words. They'd go, 'We know it sucks. We know they need to be updated.' But their position was they couldn't do anything about it. I asked, 'Who could?' They said, 'Our elected official, [Minister] Rich Coleman.' When I sent him an email saying that this happened, his staff got back to me and said that they couldn't do anything about it, but the general manager could do something about it.

"Apparently she [Karen Ayers, Assistant Deputy Minister and General Manager] doesn't report to anybody, so no one can scrutinize what she's doing."

Branch out licensing

The branch's decision left Vidovic and his partners with an empty business, a lease to pay and no revenue, so they turned to social media for support.

"We've got a whole community behind us. I don't mean just people. I mean, we're trying to get the VPD, our own liquor inspector, all of our MLAs that are relevant, and anyone in city hall willing to vouch for us, to say, 'That's just silly.'"

Their Indiegogo fundraising effort has garnered over $33,000 as of June 15 to pay for rent and unexpected plumbing and electrical work, and their Change.org petition has over 3,000 signatures -- not only in support of changing the ruling, but to reform the entire licensing process in B.C.

Vidovic sees the current licensing regime as set up for either family restaurants with a limited selection of beverages or nightclubs. Anything in between is discouraged, which diminishes the province's options for entertainment.

"The biggest thing we need is a neighbourhood pub license. If I have a fully built-out kitchen that I've invested $100,000 in, am I truly a liquor-primary? That's something I've asked. I'm not, because I'm there to serve liquor and I want the freedom to serve liquor, but I want food to be a focus. There is no reason I should not be allowed to be lumped in with a nightclub if I have food," says Vidovic. "There should be a pub license in the middle where you have a heavy service on food, and there should have a pub license where there's a light service on food."

The current regulations actually force businesses to be dishonest, he adds.

"What you think are pubs in Vancouver are actually food-primary. If a liquor inspector walked in at any time, most pubs would be fined or warned, because they're serving a couple of pitchers instead of saying, 'Here's your one meal, here's your one beer, now get out.' No business owner's going to tell someone to get out if they want to sit and have another pitcher, but by the letter of the law they have to kick them out. That's crazy."

The deeper issue is changing the way the branch operates, particularly since the Liquor Appeal Board was eliminated in 2002, leaving the B.C. Supreme Court the only body that can review the branch’s decision.

Remember the Rio

Corrinne Lea, owner-operator of the Rio Theatre on East Broadway near Commercial, is a rare example of a business that successfully fought to change the branch's decision about a liquor license for her theatre. Lea wanted the Rio to be a multimedia venue for both live shows and movies, with liquor service.

"A movie theatre wasn't allowed to have a liquor license, so when we got a liquor license, they said we could no longer be a movie theatre. They even went so far as putting on our liquor license that we were not allowed to show movies of any kind at any time. So they banned movies in our movie theatre."

Starting in January, Lea's negotiations with LCLB became something like a Kafka novel.

"They were trying to make us choose: 'Are you a movie theatre or are you a concert venue?' Any time we'd say, 'We're both,' or 'We're a multimedia venue,' they didn't have a response for that. They'd just repeat, 'Are you a movie theatre or a concert venue?' It's almost like dealing with a computer."

Over three months the Rio fought a media battle to get the decision changed, without going to court.

"We were noisy, and we were not willing to go out of business. It shocks me, but there are people who go quietly out of business instead of fighting for change. That's just not something I would ever do."

The new ruling that allowed liquor came through on April 11. Lea says they succeeded because it simply made sense to anyone that heard about the issue.

"It was one of our protest weapons. 'Logic is on our side. Why aren't you?'" she explains. "Now finally we can program our venue the way we've always wanted to. Our creativity isn't limited to what the government is allowing us to do."

With strong community support, Vidovic and his partners still plan to open EXP sometime in July this year, with video games at the table.

"I'm optimistic about them changing the video game ban. We have a lot of local support," he says. "Everyone agrees that it’s just shortsighted, just wrong, and just a policy that needs to be updated. We feel pretty confident that they'll be able to change that, and if not, then we have to take legal action to ask, 'Seriously?'"

Beyond that, he's still intent on changing the LCLB's regulations.

"Even if we're open and running and happy, I think it's something that discourages small business in Vancouver. I've heard so many business owners in Vancouver tell me that. I feel that it needs to change."  [Tyee]

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