Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Let's look at changes as a glass half full

Booze laws don't go far enough, but we'll take what we can get

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On April 1, Manitoba's antiquated liquor laws will become a thing of the past.


On April 1, Manitoba's antiquated liquor laws will become a thing of the past. Photo Store

So a Winnipegger walks into a restaurant and tries to order a beer.

"You can have that beer," the server says, "but only if you buy a plate of fries."

For decades, this annoying little exchange was no joke in Manitoba, a province with liquor laws that date back to a time when alcohol was viewed as a noxious substance.

In 2014, you can't walk into an alcohol-serving establishment licensed as a "restaurant" in this province and order a beer without also ordering food. Restaurants that operate "cocktail lounges" can sell just booze to customers, but only if there's room in those lounges.

You can order just booze in something called a "beverage room," which hotels are allowed to operate if they also house something called a "dining room." You can also order just booze in something called a "cabaret," which is a place devoted to live entertainment, which up until last month was required to have no fewer than 200 seats and wasn't allowed to have DJs.

In real life, nobody under the age of Betty White uses terms like "cocktail lounge," "beverage room" or "cabaret" when they go out and have a beer. They simply go to the bar.

As soon as April Fool's Day, these antiquated terms will be put to rest, along with a frustrating set of positively Kafkaesque Manitoba liquor regulations that included no less than 12 different liquor-licence categories.

On April 1, that number will be slashed to three. There will be one licence for liquor manufacturers, a second for liquor retailers and a third for places that serve booze by the glass.

This change should be applauded, as restaurant, hotel and club owners have been spent decades begging for simplification. The changes will allow restaurateurs to sell booze and only booze in any portion of their establishment, should their lounges fill up at night. Live music venues that serve booze can be as small as they like.

There will be an emphasis on offering food, rather than being forced to tally up exactly how much you sell. Rural hoteliers will be able to admit minors into live performances in former beverage rooms, provided kids or teens are accompanied by parents or adult guardians.

All of these baby steps are welcome because they should drastically reduce the red tape associated with serving booze in Manitoba and prevent liquor inspectors from handing out silly letter-of-the-law infractions.

But they are just baby steps. Although the Selinger government characterized the latest liquor-law update as a modernization, the moves are far from a full-blown liberalization.

In April, after a new Liquor and Gaming Control Act is enacted, Manitobans still won't be able to buy a six-pack at the local 7-Eleven. Superstore still won't be able to stock its shelves with wine.

And most significantly, Manitoban entrepreneurs still won't be able to open up establishments that sell booze and only booze -- neighbourhood bars, for lack of a better term.

The new regs should all allow smaller alcohol-serving establishments to open, provided they sell food, offer live music or both. This is important and should be applauded -- but the province shouldn't stop at making life easier for gastropubs and tiny stages.

Under the new regime, standalone bars will continue to be forbidden because the province blinked and decided not to fully liberalize the licence for alcohol-serving establishments. There actually won't be a single set of rules for anyone who wants to serve booze by the glass.

The alcohol-serving licence will be broken down into four subcategories. There will be one set of rules for places that primarily function as restaurants, a second for live music venues, a third for personal-service businesses such as spas and salons, and a fourth category for custom licences, covering everything from bowling alleys to Investors Group Field.

It will remain forbidden to simply open an establishment that looks like a neighbourhood bar, a cherished institution in many U.S. cities. This is unfortunate for downtown Winnipeg, where pocket bars occupying very small spaces could help revitalize empty storefronts.

It's also unfortunate for commercial stretches of Winnipeg's outlying areas, where residents would love to be able to walk to a local bar instead of having to drive there.

The province could have further liberalized the rules, content in the knowledge Winnipeg and other municipalities can use zoning regulations to control the proliferation of alcohol-serving establishments. But it feared a free-for-all would harm existing restaurants and hotels.

Perhaps in the future, the province can loosen its necktie even further. In the meantime, we'll take the baby steps -- and raise a glass of regulated alcohol in their honour.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 7, 2014 A7


Updated on Friday, February 7, 2014 at 6:36 AM CST: Replaces photo

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives

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