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No Joy in Happy Hour for Independent Bar Owners and Consumers

Liquor law changes force some bars to hike prices, emails to province reveal.

By Bill Tieleman 9 Dec 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

"This is very dangerous -- $2 drinks? There is no way one can possibly staff for those prices in a responsible way. Seems crazy..." -- Joey Gibbons, The Gibbons Hospitality Group, Whistler, June 25, 2014

The B.C. government was strongly warned in advance by several bar owners that its proposed happy hour would actually increase prices, reduce competition and promote overconsumption, according to correspondence obtained by The Tyee through a Freedom Of Information request.

But BC Liberal attorney general Suzanne Anton ignored critics and last June introduced happy hour liquor law changes that she claimed would allow bar owners to serve drinks at reduced prices during less busy parts of the day to encourage patrons.

Instead, the rule change had the effect of increasing prices for a pint of beer by $2 or more and a pitcher of beer by $5. 

How is that possible?

Previously, there were no minimum prices on how much a bar owner could charge for a drink. A bar could charge $10 for a pitcher of beer, for example, to draw customers. But the new rules mean bar owners must now charge minimum prices for all categories of bar drinks. That $10 pitcher of beer is now $15 at least.

After happy hour was implemented last June, Anton received many complaints from consumers that drink prices had gone up, not down.

The 141-page FOI document clearly shows that despite an extensive liquor review process, the government disregarded B.C. bar owners' serious concerns first raised by The Tyee, namely that large bar chains would squeeze out smaller operations.

Their worry was that happy hour rule changes would force many independent bars to increase the cost of lower-priced drinks -- such as beer and wine -- which had helped them compete with larger chains.

Corina Aquino, owner of Mooses Down Under Bar and Grill in downtown Vancouver, responded to a ministry request for input on Feb. 24, 2014 and spelled out her fears.

"As owner of a small family-owned business I am not too happy about happy hour as I feel that with the competition I can be out-priced by the larger chains," Aquino said by email.

"How will I compete with the Donnelly Group or the Cactus [Club] or Joey's? My buying power is much less than theirs. I am barely making a living as it is and to reduce my profit margin with the hope of more clientele is not what I need at this moment," she wrote.

Aquino's worries were echoed by other owners.

"Happy hour, given that as a purchaser I am receiving no incentive whatsoever other than the mirage of 'a busy bar is a profitable one' will benefit only those who have the purchasing power to make up the loss in other ways," wrote the owner of one Vancouver restaurant. "In other words, the chains just scored a huge victory."

Vancouver 'can't handle its drink'

The restaurant owner, who criticized the liquor law changes in the email, asked that some of his comments be "off the record."

"I'm also concerned because, and I'll be quite frank as I have managed restaurants, bars and nightclubs here in Vancouver and in NYC, Vancouver simply can't handle its drink," the owner wrote, explaining that little has been done to promote responsible consumption.

"Vancouver has a black eye internationally that has reared its head across generations when it comes to public behaviour and alcohol."

"Happy Hour is as antiquated as the laws we've just amended," the owner concluded, with underlining for emphasis.

Other bar owners who responded were pleased with the idea of happy hour but some had concerns about patrons drinking too much.

"I wouldn't be comfortable serving doubles during happy hour at a reduced price in order to control consumption," wrote Maeghan Summers, general manager of The Noble Pig Brewhouse in Kamloops. "We see it being a tool to fill quiet times and to feature new food items that go with the beverage features."

If bar owners were worried about unfair competition, loss of profits and danger from over-consumption, many consumers wrote the government that they were furious that happy hour forced drink prices to go up, not down.

In one of many emails obtained through FOI one consumer wished to "voice my extreme dismay at the recent increase in liquor prices instituted under the guise of 'Happy Hour.'"

"In short, this is an obvious tax grab (higher prices = more liquor tax collected). This is also an obvious barrel of pork for the bigger licensees, such as those represented by ABLE [the Alliance of Beverage Licensees of BC], whereby you have given them the means to keep their prices high and to avoid competition, at the expense of all British Columbians and the possibility of a more modern and healthy social environment," the consumer - whose name was removed in the FOI - wrote.

And he or she warned that their political support for the BC Liberals was in jeopardy.

"By these actions, the BC Liberal Party, and the LCLB in particular, have lost 100 per cent of my faith and trust, as well as my vote. Not only will I be continuing to oppose these changes, but I feel betrayed enough that I am seriously considering working against the BC Liberal Party in general, and actively supporting a different party which puts the interests of ordinary British Columbians first," the consumer wrote, copying it to New Democrat MLA Shane Simpson.

Some of the correspondence sent to the government is humorous, as well as pointed.

"BC's minimum [alcohol] pricing is 40-50 per cent higher than the rest of Canada... I don't believe B.C. residents are 50 per cent wealthier than Ontario or 50 per cent more susceptible to intoxication than other provinces," another unnamed person from Vancouver wrote on June 23.

"As a consumer, I felt the impact immediately, when I went to one of my local restaurants (a Japanese tapas place on Smithe) for appetizers and beer with friends, and the price had been raised from $10 to $15 over-night on their draft beer," the person wrote.

"There was no notice or public consultation on this minimum pricing. It was announced on Friday, effective immediately and the news release stated business owners and industry associations were consulted; it seems consumers were left out," the writer concluded.

Another wrote to Anton on June 23: "While the whole city was looking forward to happy hour, now that it is finally in place, the set 'minimum' pricing is absolutely ridiculous. We are the most expensive in the country by a long shot, and in fact drink prices will INCREASE in certain situations."

"This is NOT happy hour. Every other city in the world has a happy hour. We finally get the law passed, and our government still screws up?"

There's still more information to come from my Freedom Of Information request. This was only a partial disclosure.

But one thing is already abundantly clear -- the B.C. government ignored all warnings from bar owners about unfair competition and overconsumption and imposed a happy hour that raised drink prices, then thumbed its nose at consumer complaints.

Happy hour made some very happy -- just not independent bars or consumers.  [Tyee]

Read more: Food, BC Politics,

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