HALL COLUMN: Breaking the law can teach a good lesson

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 9, 2007

When I was in college, the Amoco on State Street was the place to go if you wanted beer but were not quite yet that magical age of 21.

The Cat Walk would serve you, as would Cherokee (most of the time) and whatever name the blues bar and the downtown courtyard bar were using that month.

If you were looking for something a little stouter to take back to the dorm or frat house, the liquor store on Fortification Street was your spot.

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In short, I knew where to go to buy beer or liquor without having an identification. It was a college town &8212; several colleges, mind you &8212; and it was widely known.

That&8217;s not exactly how I would relate our front page story to you this week, though. In fact, it&8217;s no where close.

First, let&8217;s be clear. Serving under-age people alcohol is against the law. It&8217;s a no-no, plain and simple.

When I waited tables and tended bar in college, I carded everyone I didn&8217;t know who looked like they might be close to being under-age. The reason? I didn&8217;t have the money to blow on a fine, and I didn&8217;t want to risk being fired.

That said, I did serve some of my friends who were under-age. No reason to lie about that. Guilty as charged.

On our front page, you&8217;ll read about eight restaurants in town who were cited by the Alabama Alcohol Beverage Control for serving beer to an under-age decoy.

The decoy, whose identity was not released, is 19. She went in to all nine restaurants who serve beer and into Wal-Mart. Only Red Barn asked her for her identification and refused to serve her. The other establishments just served her beer.

The servers in each place were cited and fined. That was even more unfortunate for servers at Pizza Hut and Batter Up!, where the person who served and was cited was not the person who took the order.

In both places, the server was not yet 21, so by law they cannot serve alcohol. Each, as they should, went to get an of-age employee to serve the beer. The of-age employees in both places, assuming the server had done due-diligence and carded the decoy, served the beer.

The good news out of all of this is that in the case of the eight restaurants, this was only their first offense. It was Wal-Mart&8217;s second offense. So far, we can say we don&8217;t have a habitual problem with restaurants serving alcohol to minors.

Too, about the only true bars in town are Red Barn (upstairs), New Orleans Bar and Grill and Escapades. The latter does not regularly serve food (and was not checked by ABC), while the others do.

Batter Up! has a small bar area, but the restaurant&8217;s main focus &8212; and clientele &8212; are families who enjoy the unique atmosphere.

I&8217;ve been to all four, and even at 31, I was carded at all but Escapades.

The other restaurants in town that were hit don&8217;t seem to do much off of beer sales. In fact, I didn&8217;t know for the longest time that Smokin&8217; Jacks and Mr. G&8217;s sold beer. Being one who enjoys a beer with dinner here and there &8212; and an occasional beer without dinner &8212; I&8217;ll keep that in mind.

But really, I&8217;ve never noticed anyone drinking in these places. The same with China Buffet. I&8217;ve seen the beer bottles behind the counter mind you, but that&8217;s about it. Then again, I&8217;ve never eaten there at night, just at lunch.

La Gran Fiesta is a different story. I can&8217;t imagine a Mexican restaurant not serving Modelo, Dos Equis or Corona. And I can&8217;t imagine Friday or Saturday nights at La Gran Fiesta without families galore. A big spot for under-age drinking I wouldn&8217;t think they would be.

Bartolo&8217;s serves beer and wine. It&8217;s not exactly the place you go to drink it up, but a good glass of wine sure goes well with Italian fare.

My point, I guess, is that I can readily accept the explanation of every owner or manager who spoke to our managing editor about this story &8212; it was an honest mistake. They train their employees, but their employees made a mistake.

In the case of Pizza Hut, the manager was the one cited. When her under-age server asked her to deliver the beer, she did so and did not card. She was the most contrite of anyone, calling it a learning experience. She even said that ABC needed to do what they did &8212; check restaurants in town.

According to the ABC representative, this was the first time they had checked restaurants in town in a while. You can bet they&8217;ll be back by the end of summer, though.

They do more routine checks of convenient stores. The last time was in April &8212; and they didn&8217;t release the findings like they did with the restaurants &8212; and only one out of 25 convenient stores were cited. That&8217;s not bad.

In the end, it shouldn&8217;t hurt the restaurants. They all have solid reputations for being good businesses.

But it is a good lesson to some of the wait staff in this area. After all, you never know who you are serving. And if the person is under-age, you are breaking the law.

Sam R. Hall is editor and publisher of The Times. He can be reached by e-mail to sam.hall@demopolistimes.com.