Markets are for consumers, cont.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s attempt to privatize liquor sales is facing opposition from fellow Republicans, such as Representative Tom Gear:

Gear, for instance, said he was concerned by suggestions that Costco and Wal-Mart would be able to sell liquor in a new system. He said he’s worried the big companies could make it tough for small retail businesses to successfully compete in the market.

“My idea was to create jobs from small operations, mom-and-pop stores,” he said. “Costco can put in liquor and never have to hire a single person.”

As Jacob Sullum notes, “Gear evidently sees liquor privatization as a stimulus program that should be judged by the number of jobs it creates.” And as this blog said recently in regard to Washington brewers’ opposition to that state’s own privatization bill, “markets are for consumers.” They’re not for uncompetitive craft brewers or inefficient retailers. They’re for consumers, and consumers are best served by a system that forces sellers to compete on price, selection, and various other factors.


DC food and drink highlights

The Columbia Room offers the best service I have ever experienced in a bar. Tucked behind The Passenger, this reservations-only bar seats only a few people in a cozy escape from the busy nightlife out front. A flat rate brings Champagne, a small plate from the kitchen, and two expertly crafted cocktails from Derek Brown. This is very much in the Japanese style of bartending: You’re greeted with a hot towel, the ice is hand-carved, and the drinks are made one at a time in a cobbler shaker. Everything I had here was excellent, standouts being the Hibiki whiskey sour and duck prosciutto.

Some speakeasy-style bars take themselves too seriously; I have been in one and watched the host make a customer search her Blackberry for her password even though her name was on the reservation and the bar was nearly empty. In contrast The Columbia Room takes you seriously. It’s all about creating the best experience possible for the guests, from meticulously taking care of every detail to customizing cocktails to suit their tastes. If you’re in DC this is absolutely worth visiting.

Another great surprise is the new restaurant Eventide in Clarendon. This is the kind of place I wish existed when I was there, standing out from the bro bars that have flourished in the neighborhood. The crowd’s a little more restrained, the food is good, and bar manager Stephen Warner makes some excellent cocktails with spirits that were often unavailable in Virginia before he convinced the state bureaucrats to carry them.

Finally, Churchkey lived up to its promise as a beer destination. With 500 bottles, 50 taps, and 5 casks, one would never run out of beers to try here. Fortunately they offer 4 ounce pours of all their taps and casks, making it easier to experiment without getting hammered. My favorites were one of BrewDog’s Scotch-aged beers on cask and Victory’s Scarlet Fire rauchbier.

Other highlights: It’s always great to see Gina at PS 7’s and James at EatBar, Crisp and Juicy still rules, and I couldn’t get enough Salvadoran food.


What’s wrong with the liquor stores we got?

The Washington Post reports that Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell is making progress on his proposal to privatize the state’s liquor stores. That’s good news, but what’s really interesting are the comments on the story. Commenters overwhelmingly oppose the idea. A sampling:

One of the nice things about living in Virginia, is not seeing big “LIQUOR” OR “CUT RATE LIQUOR” signs on every corner.

Virginia’s ABC stores are clean, quiet, civilized, and a good neighbor on the block. I’ve never been in a commercial liquor store that wasn’t ugly and dirty.

People aren’t clamoring for privately owned liquor stores in Virginia. In fact, to many of us, the well run, neat, and safe Virginia ABC stores are highly preferable to the seedy private liquor stores that you see in other states.

I agree with most of the comments posted. If it’s not broke – don’t fix it. All in all, the Virginia state store system works. While prices may not be as low as those in D.C., they still are competitve. Let’s not sacrifice a system that works for a short term, one-time injection of cash.

Agree that it is nice to have clean liquor stores and not ghetto liquor stores on every corner like in other states.

I completely agree with those who point out that having the ABC stores selling liquor means I don’t have to see billboards and signboards on every corner advertising cut-rate liquor. It’s one of the nice things about Virginia.

It’s hard to imagine any good reason why the state would be better at selling liquor than profit-seeking business owners. It’s a safe bet that none of these commenters are particularly into spirits. While Virginia stores might be clean, they’re also completely soulless: The same convenience store atmosphere and poor selection at all of them. The employees usually have no knowledge of the products they carry, prices are high, and if your tastes go at all beyond the basic brands they probably don’t have what you’re looking for. Spirit lovers either buy in DC, buy online, or suffer without.

People who aren’t into spirits have no incentive to care about this. Ads for sale prices are of no interest to them, though people who drink are happy to receive the information. The same applies to the poor selections. Who cares if you can’t find creme de violette in Virginia? A handful of consumers and specialty entrepreneurs might, but the law prevents them from doing business together and is not easily changed.

Call it the Beer We Got principle, after Alabama representative Alan Holmes’ classic speech objecting to a bill to legalize high-alcohol beers in his state (starts about 5:30):

Yeah, what’s wrong with the beer we got? I mean the beer we got drink pretty good, don’t it?

To the uninterested consumer the “X we got” will always be good enough. That’s why the state should pretty much never be in the retail business.

[Via @ivangosorio.]

Go, Bob, go!
Virginia’s Archaic Beverage Commission


Congratulations to Grape and Bean

Grape and Bean, a great coffee and wine shop in Alexandria, VA where I worked a couple years ago, is the subject of a new video by Caleb Brown:

The video is part of a contest highlighting free enterprise; vote by liking it here, and if you’re in Old Town drop in to visit David and Sheera at Grape and Bean. (Also, I’m glad to see that the Clover is still brewing good coffee!)

Minor rebellion
Grape and Bean opens in Alexandria


New cigar lounge coming to Alexandria

The Stogie Guys have the scoop on a private cigar club opening soon in Alexandria, VA, in the wake of the state’s smoking ban:

[…] CXIII Rex will have all the amenities of traditional cigar lounges, including a well-stocked walk-in humidor, a selection of top libations and small-batch wines, ample seating, wireless internet, private humidor lockers, and the like. But this club, slated to open in late March, will also feature more luxurious accommodations. Included will be a state-of-the-art air ventilation system, an access-only elevator, an all-female wait staff, and a private cigar blend crafted by none other than Rocky Patel. […]

Individual memberships, as you might expect from a club of this caliber, are not inexpensive. The cost is $5,000 to join CXIII Rex and $100 each month thereafter. Franco and Noe tell me that 200 slots are available, with 160 already claimed for. If, like me, this is above your price range, or if you reside outside the Washington metro area, you still have to appreciate the high attention to detail and passion that’s going in to creating a premier cigar lounge. I haven’t seen anything like it before.

Some of this sounds great, some of it a little gauche. (Is touting an all-female wait staff really necessary? It doesn’t exactly challenge the stereotype of the rich, male, self-important cigar smoker.) But what’s significant is that this business can exist at all. The Virginia smoking ban, as misguided as it is, at least allows for a market response. Dedicated lounges where smokers can congregate without offending others are free to open. This is in stark contrast to states like Oregon where the right to allow smoking in one’s bar is limited only to the favored few who happened to do so when a ban was passed.


Last night to smoke in Virginia

Tonight is the last night to smoke legally in most Virginia bars and restaurants before the ban takes effect tomorrow. A round-up of previous coverage:

— Tom Firey and I in The Washington Post arguing against the ban

— 75% of Virginia bars and restaurants are already smokefree; why smoking bans aren’t a reaction to market failure

— How the ban will wipe out Virginia’s hookah culture

— Why lovers of liberty should boycott the Liberty Tavern


A sinner’s governor

I don’t know much about Virginia Governor-elect Robert McDonnell, but I already like him far more than his paternalist predecessor Tim Kaine. One of the first items on his agenda is privatizing the state’s horrendous liquor stores:

[…] the commonwealth currently only has about 300 ABC stores to serve nearly 8 million people, or about one per 27,000 people. The District, in contrast, has more than 500 stores. D.C. consumers are much better served with broader selection, greater convenience and lower prices. Many Virginians, particularly the half-million or so who live inside the Beltway, travel into the District to buy spirits, costing Virginia revenue.

Virginia’s ABC stores are a tower of mediocrity. They are centrally managed retail outlets that would have been palaces in the Soviet Union, but today they are anachronistic. They offer highly limited choices, often lacking exciting new brands or those with a cult following. Staff members generally aren’t knowledgeable about how to mix drinks or make cocktails. And the prices are artificially high because there is no competition: The state decides what to charge.

That’s from Garrett Peck, whose book The Prohibition Hangover arrived at my apartment last week. It’s now at the top of my to-read pile.

McDonnell was also an opponent of the Virginia smoking ban, believing that smoking policies were another issue best left to the free market. If he can weaken the ban and eliminate the ABC liquor monopoly I’ll gladly light a stogie and sip a rare bourbon in his honor next time I’m in the Old Dominion.

Update 11/9/09: It’s been pointed out that McDonnell has a paternalist streak too, at least when it comes to the bedroom. See this Washing Post editorial about his early conservative views, which though they may have cooled still have him opposing same-sex marriage.

[Via Ivan Osorio and @StogieGuys.]


Kaine celebrates death of small businesses

It would be hard for me to adequately express my loathing for Virginia Governor Tim Kaine:

With just about 50 days to go before the Commonwealth’s landmark smoking ban goes into effect, Governor Timothy M. Kaine is joining dining patrons and community leaders across Virginia today to highlight restaurants that have already gone smoke-free. The new law—called “monumental” in one of the nation’s biggest tobacco-producing states—takes effect December 1 and will prohibit smoking in nearly all restaurants across the Commonwealth. The Governor is visiting successful restaurants in Norfolk, Richmond, Roanoke and Fairfax County that have voluntarily gone smoke-free.

“This historic public health measure will only enhance the high quality of life Virginians have come to enjoy by protecting restaurant patrons and employees from the serious health risks of secondhand smoke,” said Governor Kaine. “With a growing number of Virginia restaurants that have already found they can be both smoke-free and successful, I encourage other restaurants to go smoke-free before December 1 to immediately protect restaurant-goers and workers alike.”

It’s great that so many restaurants have voluntarily gone smokefree, but not all businesses are identical. I wonder if Kaine will include visits to Virginia’s soon to be defunct hookah bars during his 50 day countdown? The reception from those business owners won’t be nearly so warm.

The same article notes that about 70% of Virginia restaurants and bars already forbid indoor smoking.

Liberty Tavern not so keen on liberty


Virginia ABC gets slightly less archaic

It’s not often that I get to give the Virginia ABC credit for doing something right, so I’m happy to pass this along:

Peter Pflug says he should be able to charge more for mixed drinks at his restaurant and bar in Clarendon, but a long-standing food-to-liquor ratio has hindered his wishes.

The owner of Clarendon Grill was busted by the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) a few years ago for failing to maintain the required food-to-liquor ratio — the same time he noticed the nighttime crowd in Arlington County was acquiring a taste for pricier liquor. […]

But that has caused the food-to-liquor ratio to get out of whack in more affluent places such as Arlington because “you can get away with selling $12 martinis as opposed to other parts of the state where you can’t,” Pflug said.

To better balance the 45-to-55 food-to-liquor ratio, Pflug and 11 other Virginia restaurant operators have joined ABC’s two-year pilot project to test an alternative way to calculate the ratio for mixed beverage licensees.

Rather than comparing the percentage of food sales to mixed-beverage sales, the pilot is based on alcohol volume. Participating licensees can sell $350 of food per one gallon of alcohol bought from ABC. Beer and wine aren’t included in either equation.

It’s nice to see that Arlington is trending toward more liquor sales and an appreciation for better spirits and cocktails. However having to tailor one’s menu to result in a ratio of $350 food/one gallon of alcohol is still an absurd way to run a restaurant; this kind of regulation is one reason among many that I can’t imagine ever opening a bar in Virginia. It would be much smarter to eliminate ratios entirely and simply require that food is available to patrons who want it.

[Thanks to Brandon Arnold for the link!]

Brown and Bragg take on the ABC
Banning beer pong
Banning beer popsicles
Banning sangria


Government not at work

Patrick Emerson takes note of an email from the amazing Portland pub and beer shop Belmont Station:

A FULL 16 ounce PINT EVERY TIME. You asked for it, we’re delivering. We are now using oversize glasses with a 16 ounce line. Be patient. Let it settle a moment. If it’s not 16 ounces we’ll top it up. More beer for you. Less waste!

Meanwhile, in my previous home of Arlington, VA, local music hotspot Iota has implemented a new house policy:

IOTA Club & Café celebrated two milestones in March, with the Arlington venue marking its 15th year in business and also delivering the news that it would be going smoke free. […] The club went non-smoking on March 15th (its actual anniversary) getting a head start on Virginia’s smoking ban, which doesn’t take effect until December 1st. Co-owner Jane Negrey Inge said the idea had been in the works for a while and the anniversary seemed like a natural time to do it. She added that smokers are still welcomed on the club’s back patio.

Both businesses made the changes to keep their customers happy, no coercion required. Imagine that!

[Thanks to Dan for the Iota tip!]

Is there such a thing as a dishonest pint?
Liberty Tavern not so keen on liberty


Murky remembrances


I can still remember my first encounter with the coffee shop at 3211 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington, VA, which is surprising since I didn’t actually go into it. I was visiting DC on college spring break — in those days that seemed to me a fun destination — and meeting a friend from the Institute for Humane Studies for dinner in Clarendon to talk about policy jobs in DC. He wasn’t a coffee drinker and so the place barely merited a mention from him as we walked briskly by, yet I felt an almost gravitational attraction to it. It was, I thought, the kind of shop where I could happily spend a lot of time.

It turns out I was very, very wrong for thinking I would enjoy working in public policy, but the coffee shop became more significant to me than I’d ever imagined. Back then it was called Common Grounds and when I returned to DC for my first internship a few months later I immediately sought it out. It became my escape from the depressing realization that I had no real interest in the career I’d been working towards. Nearly every night I’d come home, change out of my business attire, and walk the two miles uphill to relax with coffee and a couple of books. Though I was rarely joined by anyone I knew, I enjoyed the sense of community one feels in a busy cafe even when alone.

I returned to Virginia following college graduation for lack of any better plan, my new apartment just three blocks from Common Grounds. I applied for a job there following one more failed attempt at enjoying public policy. When I checked in a few weeks later, the manager admitted that they’d lost my application. This turned out to be a moot point, for the shop was about to be sold to Nick Cho of Murky Coffee. For some reason Nick hired me.


Nick has an intense passion for coffee and he passed that on to me on my first day of training at his existing Capitol Hill location. He gave us new employees twenty bucks and sent us down the street to Starbucks to order whatever we liked. Then we came back to experience the same drinks the Murky way. I’d consumed thousands of coffee beverages and spent countless nights in coffee shops, but I’d never paid close attention to what was in the cups. This all changed when I watched Nick deftly pour perfectly textured milk into espresso, a lovely rosetta forming on the surface of the cappuccino as if by magic. I’d never seen or tasted anything like it. To this day the memory informs my work as a barista and bartender; the best gift I can give new customers is recreating that feeling of astonishment that comes from witnessing a mundane drink transformed into something wonderful.

I spent only eight months working at Murky but I continued as a customer far longer. The friendships and relationships that bloomed there are the reason I stayed in Virginia for as long as I did. Our cast of characters — a Pilates instructor, an opera singer, and a medical consultant, among others — formed a welcome community outside the cocooned world of politics. Every Sunday we gathered for coffee and a late lunch. This ritual was so valuable to me that for the year following when I worked at Open City my only requirement was that I claim the painfully early Sunday morning 5:30 am barista shift; I felt it necessary to get off in time to meet for coffee at Murky, despite spending the entire morning working the same model espresso machine and serving exactly the same blend.

I wrote above that I felt a gravitational pull to the shop. Looking back at the five apartments I lived in during my time in Virginia, I realize I was literally in orbit around it. Murky is in red, my various apartments in blue.


That’s no coincidence. Though I moved frequently and made many compromises, always being within a short walk or bike ride from my favorite coffee shop was an essential amenity.

Many people drifted in and out of our circle of regulars over the years. By the time I packed for Oregon just two of our original crew were left, meeting every Sunday to drink coffee and smoke cigars at the green light pole. Like many things at Murky, the pole was weathered and useless, existing mostly to annoy people trying to park their cars around it. Yet it was charming in its way and was the perfect place to prop up our feet and light a couple stogies in the breeze.

Hanging out at ye old green pole

If I could be there today, that’s exactly what I’d be doing. This Sunday was Murky’s last day open for business. Nick and his staff are opening a new shop, Wrecking Ball Coffee, in downtown DC. The space at 3211 Wilson Blvd. will soon become a bakery, the newest sleek addition to Clarendon’s redevelopment. Murky’s end removes one more of my tethers to the city. The thought of moving back to Arlington is now less tempting.

I could go on, but the important thing for me is saying thanks to Nick and the Murky community. Thanks for teaching me how to taste, for showing me the beauty in craft, and for giving me a place to call home in Virginia. You’ll be missed, and I wish you the best of luck in your new venture.


Virginia’s Archaic Beverage Commission

Caleb Brown and Austin Bragg take on one of America’s most worthless regulatory agencies, the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control:

Previous ABC idiocy has included banning beer pong, banning (and later allowing) beer popsicles, banning sangria until the legislature passed a law specifically allowing it (but not other beer and wine cocktails), and shutting down a small wine shop for not racking up enough food sales to go with its by-the-glass pours.

ABC’s contributions to society include… um… I’ll get back to you on that.


Will the Virginia smoking ban cost lives?

Michael Siegel, smoking ban proponent and professor at the Boston University School of Health, says yes:

… bar and restaurant owners who wish to allow smoking in their establishments must construct separately ventilated rooms. This is a very expensive proposition, because it requires not only enclosing an area of the establishment with walls, but also ventilating that room directly to the outside. […]

Designated smoking areas, even if separately ventilated, have been shown not to protect nonsmokers from exposure to secondhand smoke in practice because smoke readily escapes from the designated smoking rooms into the nonsmoking areas. And in the smoking areas themselves, tobacco smoke exposure is astronomically higher due to the heavy concentration of smokers. Workers in those areas suffer greatly increased exposure to secondhand smoke. […]

In fact, there is strong evidence that restricting smoking to designated areas actually results in a net increase in health effects: while workers in the nonsmoking areas have less exposure, the increased exposure for workers in the smoking areas far more than offsets those gains.

It’s an interesting argument, though I’m not yet convinced it applies to Virginia — the costs of complying with the new legislation may be so prohibitive that very few separately ventilated smoking lounges will be constructed. However, the problem points to the futility of most smoking bans. If they allow for any exceptions, the few remaining smoke-friendly businesses will have especially high concentrations of ETS, increasing exposure for both patrons and employees. If they don’t allow exceptions, they excessively restrict people’s freedom.

(On that last point I think Siegel and I disagree. He hasn’t responded to a request for clarification on his position, but he seems to believe that the only acceptable number of smoke-friendly bars and restaurants is zero. As an occasional smoker, professional bartender, and potential business owner, I find that a galling infringement of my rights.)

The unintended consequences of partial bans are yet another reason to take softer approaches to preventing workplace smoke exposure, such as offering one time tax breaks to smokefree businesses, rather than trying to legislate specific rules about which businesses can allow their customers to smoke.

Smoking ban unfair, insulting


The death of VA hookah bars

One of the issues that was overlooked in Virginia’s smoking ban debate was its impact on hookah bars. The AP covered their plight yesterday:

[Maher] Elmasri worries his livelihood could be wiped out. His restaurant, Lebnan Zaman, owes its popularity to the hookah, a water pipe popular in Middle Eastern culture. Virginia’s newly passed smoking ban – which awaits the governor’s signature – unlike some others across the country, makes no exception for hookahs.

Elmasri says the ban kills an old cultural tradition.

“It’s not just about the smoking. It’s about people getting together, getting a sense of back home,” said Elmasri, a Palestinian immigrant. […]

The Virginia law makes some exceptions to allow smoking sections in separately ventilated rooms. Elmasri, who recently spent more than $10,000 to put new air filters in his restaurant, said he can’t envision a way to reconfigure his small shop into one that will comply with state law.

“For us this is a life-or-death question,” said Elmasri, who estimated that 70 percent of his customers smoke, and that they generate more than 80 percent of the revenue.

Middle Eastern hookah bars are one of Northern Virginia’s hidden treasures, a unique cultural experience thriving in the suburbs. The small lounges feature delicious mint tea, water pipes with flavored tobacco, music, and special lighting at night. Given how few of them exist, it’s unlikely anyone working in them objects too strenuously to the smoky environment. Yet because Governor Tim Kaine thinks he knows better than the employees what’s best for them, they will soon no longer have a choice in the matter — or likely any job at all.

Reading about people like Maher Elmasri is what so absolutely disgusts me about politicians like Tim Kaine and his publicity-seeking abettors like the owners of the Liberty Tavern. Their zeal to wipe out smoking in public places knows no respect for the rights of small business owners or a smoking culture that comes to a different balance between pleasure and health.

Given their small size, it will be difficult for many of Virginia’s hookah bars to survive the ban. If you’re in the area, go check them out while you have the chance.

Update 2/26/09: South Bend 7 has a remembrance of fun times with hookahs that’s worth reading.


VA ban finalized

The House, disappointingly, crawled back to the negotiation table. The final result, sure to be signed by Kaine:

Their ban covers most restaurants and bars, but permits smoking in private clubs and in establishments that construct separately ventilated enclosed smoking rooms for patrons. Neither the anti-smoking movement nor the tobacco industry was thrilled with the compromise plan.


Watered down bans

Some kind of smoking ban in Virginia is extremely likely. Fortunately, the House Republicans have grown a tiny pair and added some compromises to the bill:

Amendments added yesterday eliminated the need for separated ventilation and carved out exceptions for smoking in outdoor patio areas; at restaurants during private functions when the function takes up the entire restaurant; and at clubs or bars that cater to adults 18 years old or over. […]

“We’re supposed to be the party of more freedom, not less freedom,” Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick (R-Prince William). “As much as I personally would love a smoking ban, it’s not my job to tell small business owners what they can and cannot allow in their small businesses.”

I haven’t read the actual bill yet so I don’t what exactly that will mean in practice, but it’s an improvement over the original language. If we’re really lucky the Senate will refuse to back down and no legislation will pass.

In other news, add Nebraska to the list of states who may be carving out exceptions to their smoking bans:

Under one bill (LB355) considered by state lawmakers during a public hearing on Monday, so-called cigar bars would be exempt from the statewide smoking ban slated to go into effect in June. The ban now contains few exceptions, banning smoking in almost all workplaces.

Supporters of the bill from Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha say shops where cigars are sold should be exempt from the ban because they specialize in cigars.

Another bill (LB600) from Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber would exempt pool halls from the ban. But smoking wouldn’t be allowed in just any pool hall. A hall would have to have at least 20 pool tables to be exempt.

Good for them. The pool table requirement really gets at the absurdity of leaving legislators to determine which businesses should be able to allow smoking. In Oregon they can’t seat more than 40 people. In some cities they need to get a certain percentage of their revenue from tobacco sales. In Nebraska they may need to have 20, but not 19, pool tables. Wouldn’t it be easier to just let the owners decide if their patrons want a smoking environment?