Small theaters like the Grand Cinema in Tacoma are asking the state Legislature to create a special liquor license that would allow them to serve beer and wine.
A bill introduced by state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, aims to help small, historic theaters serve alcohol without requiring extensive food service on the premises or banning minors from the theater. A companion bill has also been introduced in the state Senate, but has yet to receive a hearing.
Should House Bill 1001 pass, the Grand “would seriously look at going down this path” of serving alcohol during film showings, said Mitch Robinson, president of the Grand’s board of directors.
“What our members tell us is they like the idea,” Robinson said last week. “You can imagine for certain kinds of movies, at certain times of night, it would really be appropriate.”
After surveying patrons and hearing that they would like beer and wine service, the Grand met with representatives from the state Liquor Control Board to see how the theater could go about serving drinks. The road forward was far from clear, Robinson said.
“When we explored how to apply for and get approval for this privilege, we discovered a myriad of setbacks due to the lack of a specific liquor license for a theater like ours,” wrote Robinson and Philip Cowan, the Grand’s executive director, in a letter supporting the bill. “We believe HB 1001 directly addresses this problem an appropriate manner allowing for responsible businesses like ours, using a strict minor control plan, to provide beer and wine for our customers.”
At the bill’s hearing Thursday before the House Government Accountability & Oversight Committee, several small theater owners from throughout Western Washington spoke in support of the bill, saying it would give them another source of revenue to help them compete with suburban multiplexes.
While some large multiplex theaters in Washington operate as dinner theaters under a restaurant liquor license, that kind of operation is beyond the reach of smaller theaters that have limited space and resources, proponents of the bill testified Thursday.
“It’s hard for us to compete,” said A.J. Epstein, who runs the West of Lenin theater in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. “We don’t have room for restaurants. We don’t have room for a dedicated space only for beer and wine service that can be basically a bar.”
Opponents of the bill said that putting alcohol in more places sets a negative example for young people.
“We now see sampling or the sale of alcohol at farmer markets, grocery stores, wedding boutiques, spas …. We think this sends the wrong message to our youth in that it normalizes the use of alcohol,” said Seth Dawson with the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention.
The bill would require theaters to submit an alcohol control plan to the state Liquor Control Board explaining how they would prevent underage drinking.
While nonprofits like the Grand Cinema are eligible for a nonprofit license that would allow them to serve beer, wine and spirits, often there is a great deal of confusion involved when conducting business using a nonprofit liquor license, said Thom Mayes, executive director of the Olympia Film Society. The Olympia Film Society is licensed as a nonprofit to serve alcohol in the Capitol Theater in downtown Olympia.
“There’s a major breakdown of communication between the Liquor Control Board, the distributors and the people that have the license,” Mayes said. “It took a lot of educating the people selling to us. We the people that have the license know what we are allowed to do, but no one else seems to. If there were a system where we could have a very clear permit, it would be easier for us.”
Rep. Christopher Hurst, the Enumclaw Democrat who chairs the House Government Accountability & Oversight Committee, said he thinks the bill is a good idea that may need a few tweaks, such as adding language to require that theater employees be licensed to serve alcohol if they’re pouring drinks.
“We need to refine it just a little bit more, but I’m pretty sure we can address those concerns,” Hurst said.