Archaic liquor laws smothering B.C. bars and restaurants, lounge owner says

Click to play video: 'B.C. bars say red tape liquor laws hurting business'
B.C. bars say red tape liquor laws hurting business
The owner of another small business is speaking out against government red tape getting in the way. As Aaron McArthur reports, a Vancouver bar owner says liquor laws simply don't make sense - and if they don't change - it might be the last call for some establishments. – Dec 12, 2023

The owner of one of Canada’s top-rated bars says red tape in B.C.’s liquor industry has hamstrung his business.

Lewis Hart owns Lao Wai, a speakeasy-style lounge in Vancouver’s Chinatown that’s won national acclaim.

But he says archaic liquor laws — particularly around ordering in specialty products — have him rethinking doing business in the province.

“The biggest frustration is, we just cant get the product to showcase what we can do. It can take up to eight weeks to get a pretty standardized product that’s not listed on BC Liquor shelves,” he said.

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At issue is what are known as “spec” items through the B.C. liquor distribution system. Those are products that BC Liquor Stores don’t stock themselves.

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Under B.C. law, all bars and restaurants still need to order through BC Liquor Stores, which means if they want a spec item, they have to order an entire case.

“We can’t order from BC Liquor and order a bottle at a time, so we can be sitting on sitting on thousands of dollars of product that will be sitting there redundantly for months.”

Hart said the rules have left him tap dancing to supply his business, sometimes needing to barter bottle-for-bottle with other bars in the area — other times, driving as far as Whistler to get his hands on a bottle.

What’s worse, he said it kills creativity and his ability to build a menu that stands out from the competition.

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It’s enough to make him consider pulling up stakes to work in a place where he has a freer hand with his menu, he said.

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“When we explain what we have to do as a business operator, people in Hong Kong and China and Italy actually laugh and can’t understand what we actually have to do just to put product on the shelves,” he said.

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Darryl Lamb, brand manager at Vancouver’s Legacy Liquor Store, said it doesn’t make sense that businesses like Hart’s aren’t allowed to walk in and buy a bottle off his shelves.

Private liquor stores like Legacy are still required to buy their product from the Liquor Distribution Branch, and restaurants already buy at wholesale price, meaning the province will still get the revenue from any bottle sold, he said.

Instead, he said, businesses are forced to either forego unique and pricey products or tie up thousands of dollars of capital they could be spending on staff, rent and expenses, by buying entire cases.

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“We’re seeing cool wine lists not happening, cocktail bars struggling to use boutique items,” he said.

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“This really affects our idea that Vancouver and British Columbia is a world class tourism destination if the only thing you can get is Smirnoff vodka.”

The challenge Hart and Lamb are highlighting isn’t unknown to the province.

Early in the BC NDP’s term, then-attorney general David Eby appointed a liquor policy advisor to review regulations, resulting in a 2018 report with 24 recommendations to improve the system.

One of those recommendations was allowing bars and restaurants to purchase product through private liquor stores.

Mike Farnworth, whose Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General oversees the Liquor Distribution Branch, said the province hasn’t ruled the idea out.

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But he said the province has focused its liquor industry reforms in other areas that would have the biggest benefit to the largest number of businesses.

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Loosening patio regulations, allowing restaurants to sell take-out liquor, extending liquor store hours, and dropping limits on out-of-province liquor bought for personal consumption are among the current government’s reforms.

“We recognize there are other recommendations and this is one of those that’s still under consideration,” Farnworth said.

“It doesn’t mean we won’t get to it, but given staff resources, given the industry as a whole and the range in the industry, (our approach) is to do as much as we can to help the broad industry.”

It’s an answer that’s cold comfort for Hart, who says he wants the freedom to go pick a single bottle of specialty spirit off the shelf, and get back to experimenting with flavours.

“I just want to be able to go to a liquor store and say, ‘Here’s a bottle, let’s get going, let’s make some money on a Friday,'” he said.

“It shouldn’t take me eight weeks to make a classic cocktail.”

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