BC Liquor Licensing – A Patchwork Quilt of Policies

BC liquor licensing has become a patchwork of inconsistent policies.  There is a need for the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) and the Liquor Branch to undertake an initiative to harmonize the various local government policies and bylaws regarding BC liquor licensing, as this would clearly be in the public interest. Over the years, various local governments have created their own set of unique liquor policies and bylaws that their staff oversee, enforce and usually refuse to exercise discretion to these policies.

Just as the patchwork quilt that was sewn together by your great-grandmother and handed down from generation to generation came from an authentic place and time but is now showing signs of wear and tear, needs attention and maybe an entire new backing of the finest material, we need to address the liquor policies and create the new fabric of improving BC liquor licensing policies and regulations for a better tomorrow.

The current situation only creates confusion for the public in terms of what one can and can’t do in licensed establishments, depending on what municipality they happen to be located in at the time. It’s confusing to our tourists, who still shake their heads at our “antiquated” liquor laws. It also creates an unfair playing field for licensees with some liquor licenses having a competitive advantage over others in neighbouring municipalities.

Here are some examples of how liquor licensing in BC has become a mishmash of confusing and contradictory policies.

Liquor service hours

Vancouver liquor license holders often have a competitive advantage over licensees in other municipalities due to less restrictive serving hours. For example, the City of Vancouver permits liquor service to commence at 9am, which is beneficial for various establishments including golf courses for tournaments, brunch service, sporting events, etc.  However, Surrey doesn’t allow liquor sales and service to commence before 11am.  Some municipalities, again using Vancouver as an example, permit licensed establishments to close at 2am or 3am. In Vancouver, restaurants can apply to end liquor service at 1am every night of the week and 2am on Friday and Saturday.  However, other municipalities hold the line at 1am or 2am closings.

Entertainment in licensed establishments

Some municipalities such as Richmond permit karaoke entertainment in Food Primary or Liquor Primary establishments. However, others such as Burnaby do not want karaoke entertainment. So, if you are a food primary or liquor primary licensee in Burnaby wanting karaoke entertainment, you are out of luck.

Licensing of Spas, Barber shops/hair salons and other businesses where liquor services under a liquor primary license and liquor sale and service is secondary to the primary focus

This is a fun one! If you own a spa, barber shop or retail store in Vancouver you are not permitted to apply for a liquor license to legally serve liquor to your guests. The only exception to this Vancouver policy so far is the liquor primary bar in Nordstrom’s on the second floor. However, Whistler and Burnaby permit the licensing of these types of establishments.

It should be noted that quite a few spas and salons have been offering wine and/or champagne to their customers for decades without a liquor license.

Illogical and irrational policies of local governments

There are several municipalities that have what can only be described as illogical and irrational policies, and the City of Vancouver is the leader of the pack! We had great hope a year ago that the city, during their liquor policy review, would modernize Vancouver liquor license policies.  Indeed, city staff working on the policy changes met several times with various industry stakeholders and made it clear that changes were being recommended to council. Unfortunately, that failed to materialize and the City Council, for whatever reason (we’re not sure what’s in their drinking water) voted to maintain these policies.

Here are our top three bizarre Vancouver liquor license policies:

  1. Early closing hours for liquor service for new restaurants

The city has a policy that any new restaurant or transfer of ownership of a receiver must restrict their liquor service hours to end at midnight, seven days a week for the first three months of opening.  However, their competition can serve liquor Sunday to Thursday 9am to 1am and Friday and Saturday to 2am.  This places the new establishment at a considerable disadvantage, particularly at a time when they are trying to create their position in the market, while incurring the high costs of building a restaurant and hiring staff.

The city rationale for the policy is to determine if the new restaurant will impact negatively on the surrounding community and be responsible. To be fair to the city, this policy of a three month waiting period used to be six months. Here is a real time scenario. A well-established Vancouver restaurant group with an impeccable record with the city and the liquor branch spanning decades, wants to open another restaurant and is going to have to comply with the Vancouver liquor license policy for three months, even though all of its competitors in the area or the city have the extended hours. It doesn’t matter to the city if the establishment is a high- end fine dining restaurant with table cloths, no dance floor, no stage and no DJ booth.  You are still penalized for three months and then have to go through the expense of applying and undertaking public notification of the desire for extended hours. No other local government in BC has this illogical policy.

  1. Small is not good city policy

The city has a policy that basically states if you want to establish a liquor primary licensed establishment within 50 metres of our establishment of the same size class you could not do it. Your only option is to “go big or go home”. In other words, if we have a 65-seat bar and you want 65 seats or less (Class I type establishment) you could not do it. You would have to go for a Class II type establishment which is a 66 to 150 seat capacity establishment. The purpose of this Vancouver liquor license policy is to promote diversity and to prevent a countless number of establishments of the same size in an area. No other city has this policy and one must ask “Why confine the market place to this extent?”

  1. City moratorium

Vancouver has a moratorium on the issuance of any new liquor licenses or changes to existing licenses in the Downtown East Side, Gastown & the Granville Entertainment District. This moratorium was intended to prevent a further concentration of liquor primary bars in these areas of Vancouver that already have a significant number of bars.

This policy even applies to relocation of existing liquor primary establishments within these areas (across the street or down the block).

Unintended consequences of this policy are as follows:

  • The policy actually supports the continued viability of the existing licensed establishments in these areas, particularly the problematic ones. Wouldn’t the Downtown East Side be far better off without the continued existence of some dinosaurs such as the Balmoral, Regent, Brandi’s, Cobalt and Savoy bars!
  • It prevents competition, which works as an agent for change, and there is no question that these areas need to change.

In summary, liquor licensing in BC is not equal from one municipality to another, putting some businesses at a clear disadvantage. Where Vancouver liquor licensing is concerned, it’s no wonder that the City of Vancouver has a reputation for being a city to avoid doing business in if it involves liquor. We have had several clients look at the policies and regulations of the City of Vancouver and decide to move on to other municipalities, and indeed other provinces.