The day the music died

A closer look at the struggle between the city and some establishments over what constitutes a live music venue

Chris Griffin
Locos co-owner Ben Everette

IMAGINE YOU'RE STROLLING through the beautiful downtown Historic District on a weekend night. You’re looking for someplace to enjoy some good live entertainment along with a meal.

It could be music you’re up for, or stand-up comedy, or hell, even a juggling act. But mainly you’re interested in finding some sort of diversion — specifically one you could take in either during or after dining, and while imbibing. That is to say that you’re of legal drinking age and feel responsible enough to indulge in beer, wine or cocktails.

There are currently no shortage of places which offer both libations and live entertainment. Some are strictly bars or clubs —meaning they derive the majority of their revenue from the sales of alcoholic beverages and/or entrance fees— while others are clearly restaurants which happen to offer booze.

Now, as of a couple of years ago (and for over a decade before that) the owners of any bar or club which also featured bona fide live entertainment (meaning musicians, comics, actors and performers of all stripes, but excluding DJs) could choose to allow patrons under the legal drinking age of 21 into their venue to enjoy the live entertainment — provided they somehow marked them as underage, and strictly prohibited them from buying or otherwise obtaining alcohol while on the premises, under penalty of criminal charges and/or losing their license to dispense alcohol.

Under a couple of different scenarios and provisos, that’s a pretty common practice in countless towns and cities across the country. When enforced properly, it allows people who are old enough to vote and die for our country to also be able to catch a cool band or songwriter they would otherwise be legally barred from seeing.

That’s because by and large, the concert promotion business is so dicey that the only venues which can often afford to take the risk on paying an established act to play their room need the high profit margins provided by alcohol sales to actually keep the club or bar in the black.

Think of them like movie theaters. The musicians are the films which draw in the folks, but virtually all of the ticket proceeds got straight to the studios. The Carmikes of the world are actually in the popcorn and candy business, and alcoholic drinks are the popcorn and candy that keep live entertainment clubs and bars open.

There were only ever a handful of establishments in town that took proper advantage of this useful and forward-thinking ordinance, but unfortunately, unscrupulous dance club operators acted for years as though the privilege of allowing minors into live entertainment venues applied to them, and our local police force let them get away with it.

A couple of years ago, after ages of documentable infractions and a steady stream of citations for serving minors, the behavior of these “booty bars” (which cater primarily to folks interested in getting tanked, pairing off and hooking up, as opposed to focusing their attention on a featured artist) City Manager Michael Brown, former Chief of Police Dan Flynn, and City Attorney James Blackburn were able to convince the Mayor and his Council to rescind that ordinance rather than merely crack down on the flagrant violators.

And so, a new ordinance was crafted, which specifically prohibited anyone under the age of 21 from setting foot inside a business whose primary function was to sling hooch — live entertainment or no.

While this effectively kept minors out of bars and nightclubs, there was a distinct and notable exception made to this law, and one that —on its face— made plenty of sense: Those under 21 could be allowed entry to places which served alcohol, provided those places were bona fide, “full-service” restaurants which derived at least 51 percent of their gross annual income from the sale of food, regardless of whether or not they also had a bar.

This provision prevented all manner of eatery/bar combinations (from tourist-fueled River Street businesses to Southside hotspots like Outback, Chili’s and B & D Burgers) from having to turn away teenagers or families with underage children, merely because adults were free to drink in their presence. It was also a boon to those restaurant/bar combos which rely on live acts to draw in customers who want to be entertained while they dine and/or drink.

One such combo is Locos Deli & Pub, a large, Broughton Street branch of a small Athens-based chain. With a legal capacity of over 300, a high-profile location and a clientele that ranges from senior citizens to teens to families with young children, it serves food as late as midnight, and its bar remains open a few hours after that to accommodate late night revelers and music fans who flock to the location’s rock, funk, soul and blues concerts most Friday and Saturday nights.

Because Locos is definitely a full-service restaurant (co-owner Ben Everette says roughly 75 percent of their sales come from food as opposed to alcohol), they’ve been allowing small number of minors into their Pub for certain shows — minors which are marked clearly with a bracelet to denote them as underage, and charged a few bucks more to get in so as to offset the fact they can’t buy alcohol.

Everette estimates he usually has no more than four to six minors at an average concert, but as far as Alderman Van Johnson is concerned, even one is too many. Johnson became incensed a few weeks back when he stopped by for a late dinner at Locos and noticed they were carding people at the door and charging them admission to see a band on a stage (which doubles as a raised seating area at peak dining hours).

He immediately made it clear to Locos’ owners that he felt they were in complete and flagrant violation of the current law prohibiting minors from bars and clubs, and within 72 hours, had brought this to the attention of the City Manager’s office, who he says, agreed with him that this type of scenario flies in the face of the ordinance.

In the alderman’s own words, “Under our law, either you are a club, or you are a restaurant. They are a restaurant that’s acting like a bar.”

While the eatery’s owners believe just as strongly that they’re in total compliance with the ordinance and that Johnson has singled them out unfairly for a common practice that dozens of restaurants all over the city have engaged in openly for years, their lawyers advised them to cancel all their live music until they could receive a definitive answer from the city as to whether or not they would be charged with any violation.

Unfortunately, they have yet to receive a concrete answer from the city. And the lost revenue and misleading publicity which has turned this situation into a rumor mill of no small proportions is threatening the very viability of their operation.

“They’re just keeping us hanging and not giving us any answers,” says an exasperated Everette. “Until they get this figured out, they should let us keep operating as we have been. But, our liquor license is up for renewal in a few weeks, and that’s a privilege, not a right. Right now we’re afraid anything we do will be used against us to deny us that license.”

Johnson says that his problem is solely with what he perceives as poor enforcement of the Council’s ordinance.

“I never faulted Locos, because I believed they were acting in a way that they were told to act.”

However, in a few key respects, Johnson’s own explanation of the intended meaning of the ordinance actually contradicts the unambiguous and direct wording of the law — which clearly states that minors may be allowed into bona fide restaurants which also serve alcohol, provided there is actual live entertainment on display and the minors are “clearly identified” by a “wrist bracelet or other recognizable mark or device.”

In other words, exactly how Locos handles the situation, almost to the letter.

When asked directly if it’s at all possible that he is the one who has misinterpreted the law, as it clearly allows for such a use, Johnson bristles.

“We can’t misinterpret something we made! That’s the cart before the horse. The Council makes policy and the staff implements,” Johnson tells us. “I think the intent of the council was clear. If it got lost somewhere in the transmission then the staff needs to make a policy that’s at one with Council’s wishes.”

In other words, Johnson’s position is that City Council, after great deliberation and public hearings, passed a law worded in a way which goes completely against the spirit of the intended policy.

Ironically, it was this one provision that was seen by many in the local restaurant and musical communities as one of the only logical and fair facets of an otherwise ham-fisted ordinance.

Many in the community are openly ridiculing this entire situation, finding it quite hard to believe that Johnson either A) is unfamiliar with the concept of a restaurant with a bar which continues to serve alcohol after normal dining hours (and may or may not offer live entertainment) or B) truly perceives such an arrangement as a threat to public safety, as he has opined.

Others openly decry Johnson’s role in this matter as political grandstanding, or some form of misguided, high-profile “payback” for what some in the black community believe is unfair attention and criticism paid to a couple of notoriously troublesome, black-oriented nightspots.

He vehemently denies any ulterior motives for this crackdown on Locos, and says it was merely luck of the draw which prompted his involvement.

“The only reason Locos came into it was that I was there as a patron,” Johnson says. “I love their food and before this happened I ate there often. Both at lunch and dinner.”

Everette says that while his business will gladly fight this battle on their own, he’d feel much better if others would join the cause.

Then I’d have dozens of places to share legal expenses with me. How far is this going to go? I mean it can’t just stop at us and Wild Wing’s just because we’re the places that Van is all hot about right now,” Everette says.

“This could go all the way down to the Olde Pink House! I mean, they have a pianist. That’s live music, and they’re a restaurant with a bar. This is ridiculous,” he says.

Everette says Locos has lost “literally thousands of dollars” in revenue over the past three weeks since this happened.

“The PR is absolutely terrible,” he says. “People call up all the time who’ve heard rumors that we’ve been shut down or lost our liquor license, which is not true at all. It’s even affected our Sunday business where people come in to watch football, which is a huge part of our business.”

What does Alderman Johnson say about the financial hardship and lost revenue this situation has brought on the restaurant and pub?

“Obviously there’s a cost of doing business, and businesspeople understand that.”


The night before this cover story was set to go to press, I spoke with Locos co-owner Ben Everette again, and he told me that after his lawyer had spoken with the City, it looked very promising that some sort of temporary compromise would be reached which would allow the restaurant to go ahead and continue to present live entertainment as they had been — at least until a final determination was made by the Mayor and Alderman on either revising the ordinance, or definitively hammering out just what was and was not allowed under the current one.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he told me, knowing that I would need to know as soon as possible if his club would be featuring live music in the upcoming days, so that info could be included in our Soundboard and New Year’s concert roundup. “But for right now,” Everette enthused, “it’s looking good.”

However, the following afternoon, literally minutes before we were set to go to press, I finally got Everette on the phone, and to say his tone had changed would be an understatement.

“Something really fucked-up happened last night,” he said in the beat-down voice of a man who’d likely been up all night worrying.

It seems that only a few hours after he and I had last spoke, Locos’ future in Savannah had been dealt a severe blow. They had been popped for serving alcohol to a minor.

This reportedly makes the second time in the history of the restaurant that they have been cited for such an infraction, and in many respects, this new development altered the playing ground of this conflict substantially — something it seems quite designed to do.

Everette related to me how the whole thing went down.

“It was about five minutes till midnight,” he recalled.

“We were just about to shut down, when a couple comes in. A guy who looked about 40 with a slightly younger looking girl. They said they wanted to order food, so I headed to the kitchen to have the cooks fire the grills back up and prepare for two last orders.”

By the time the owner/manager returned from the kitchen, to his initial surprise, the couple had already left.

“What happened was it was an undercover police thing, and the girl was younger than she looked. They ordered two drinks before their meal, and once they got ‘em, that’s all they needed,” he explained with a sigh.

“Five minutes later, people from the Revenue Department came in and we were charged with serving a minor.”

Everette says he has no idea whether or not the Revenue Department (which regulates liquor licenses) tried the same tactic at other restaurants that night as well, or if they simply headed straight for Locos in an attempt to destabilize the deli and pub’s position in the public eye.

Regardless, Everette does not shy away from accepting blame for the infraction.

“I had made it clear to all my employees that we should be expecting something like this to come at us, and to make sure they carded everyone no matter how old they looked. The bottom line is that we screwed up. It’s our responsibility.”

Yet, whether or not this was an insidiously-timed sting aimed at discrediting a safe, popular business which has —by and large— done a good job of policing itself, the damage was done. Everette and his partner Michael Connor felt the heat, and they felt it in a big way.

“Now this has gone from us feeling like we were being unfairly targeted for having live music to something else entirely,” he mused, sounding sad and resigned.

“Frankly, this changes everything about this entire situation, and at this point, I’m not entirely comfortable speaking out, because I’m seriously worried it will only make things worse and that we will lose our liquor license over this.”

“If that happens,” he added, “it will bankrupt us.”

By Christmas day, the die had been cast.

According to a front-page story in the Savannah Morning News, Locos has been barred from presenting any more live music, and in light of the underage drinking violation resulting from the sting operation, Revenue Director Buddy Clay says that any sort of compromise is now “off the table.”

Meanwhile, Alderman Van Johnson, (who during our extended talk had expressed the intriguing opinion that “People want to play by the rules as long as the rules are fair — even if they disadvantage them in some type of way, they’ll play by ‘em”) now suddenly says that in his opinion, the City should not enforce the laws equally across the board. He feels there is no compelling reason to subject all restaurants to the same level of scrutiny as Locos, nor to shut down the live music at those restaurants as well!

“I think we have to be reasonable, but I think some establishments are taking it over the edge,” he was quoted as saying.

While hardly anyone would dare speak on the record to the underlying currents of inherent racism which have hung over this debacle like a funeral shroud, departing Alderman Ellis Cook did not shy away from saying publicly what most of us who pay attention to such things have assumed for some time now: that black members of City Council, stung by what they perceived to be the unfair pigeonholing of certain local music and dance clubs which cater to an overwhelmingly black clientele, are seizing this opportunity to push around a similarly-sized establishment that primarily books musical acts which tend to appeal more to whites.

“Michael (Brown) is being pressured by the black people on City Council,” the Morning News quoted Cook as opining.

“He’s kind of between a rock and a hard place.”

Unfortunately for all of Savannah, whatever uncomfortable position our blowhard City Manager finds himself in this time pales in comparison to the awful, livelihood-threatening situation now faced by literally scores of professional musicians in town, not to mention restaurateurs, cooks, servers, bussers, hosts and hostesses, dishwashers, bartenders and sound engineers, all of whom make their living in some way based off of the draw that live entertainment holds for restaurant customers citywide.

Those who enjoy live music as well may soon find themselves facing substantially fewer choices as far as nightlife goes.

In a very real sense, this short-sighted crusade by a small group of influential people with little nuanced understanding of the restaurant, bar or entertainment business may just wind up driving a stake into the heart of Savannah’s live music community — at just the time when we are finally starting to be seen as more of a worthwhile destination for music lovers (and players) of all kinds.

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