Foodservice Equipment Reports

Chains Await Action On Utah’s Liquor License Shortage

National restaurant chains have been saying for more than a year that Utah’s lack of liquor licenses is keeping them from opening units in the state. In May, Utah had only one liquor license to grant to a full-service operation. That shortage and the lack of expansion by multiunit chains has finally hit home for the state government. Last week, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said that the lack of liquor licenses available in the state is hindering business and must be addressed.

Each month, alcohol permits become available through a quota system if the state population grows or if an existing business surrenders its license. According to the Salt Lake City Tribune, 28 applicants went away empty-handed in April. This month, 45 applicants have filed for a variety of liquor permits—but only one, a full-service license allowing all types of alcohol—is available. No permits were available for 13 limited-service restaurants which hoped to serve beer and wine; 17 clubs are on a yearlong wait list to serve alcohol at fine-dining eateries or bars.

The state is a no-go for multiunit operators who typically must have several permits on hand to break into the market and guarantees that more licenses will become available as they build out their brands. Some operate with seasonal licenses. Buffalo Wild Wings is among those waiting for a liquor license. The Minneapolis-based chain had been planning to open up to a dozen other restaurants in Utah, but so far it has obtained only two licenses.

Utah’s quota-based limits on liquor licenses only allows one full-service restaurant permit for every 4,295 residents. In California, it is one license per 2,000 people; in Idaho, it is one per 1,500 people; and in Washington, it is one license per 1,200 residents.

The state’s demographics are shifting toward non-Mormons who don’t have the same religious prohibitions against drinking alcohol. According to legislative auditors, alcohol consumption in Utah from 2001-09 jumped by 54%, more than double that of the population increase.