Wednesday is National Dive Bar Day, so now seems the ideal time to tell my tale of owning a dive bar, not least because of the reveals concerning local bureaucracy. And my bar was right here, on Santa Barbara’s west side, so it’s a local story to boot.
I always wanted to own a bar — a classic American saloon, a real bar, no food, maybe a jar of pickled eggs.
You know how they say the second happiest day of your life is buying a yacht and the first is when you sell it?
The same is true about bars.
Mind you, I’m glad to have owned a bar. I learned a lot from the experience.
The first thing I learned: Never own a bar.
The second thing I learned: Never own any kind of small business in the state of California.
A business law attorney, much too late, told me his “ABC Rule” for clients: Anywhere but California.
ABC also stands for Alcoholic Beverage Control.
These are the folks who derive their salaries and budget from alcohol licensing fees, then use part of this booty for setting up entrapment schemes to trip up busy bartenders and catch them off guard with a confusing ID so they can collect even more money in fines.
Happened to me.
I wasn’t the bartender, but I don’t blame him given the circumstances, especially since he was normally quite vigilant about recognizing fake IDs and chasing out under-agers.
Well, ABC’s Mr. Pond summons me to Ventura for a dressing-down.
No problem, I can take my lumps.
And then I get to choose the punishment: Pay a $2,000 fine to ABC or close for 30 days.
“Easy,” I say, without hesitation. “We’ll close for 30 days.”
“Huh?” says Mr. Pond.
“I’ll take the 30-day closure.”
“Really?” He is surprised. “Why?” he asks.
“Because I own the building, I’ll give myself a break on the rent. And I want my bartenders to lose work for 30 days so they learn a lesson about this kind of thing and don’t screw up again. And my regular customers, who think my bar is their living room? Well, after they lose their local bar for a month, they’ll think twice about trying to sneak in their under-age nephews and nieces.”
“What if I reduce the fine to $1,200?” says Mr. Pond.
Clearly, ABC wants the money, not the closure.
“Doesn’t matter, I’ll still take 30 days.”
“But, but, nobody ever does that.”
“I’m doing it.”
My reasoning: Not only is ABC not getting money out of me for entrapping my bartender, the state of California will lose out on 30 days’ sales tax.
Hence, maybe bureau-crazy will learn its own lesson.
And speaking of sales tax and bureau-crazy: A representative of the California Tax Franchise Board audited my bar books after revenues declined due to our no-service policy to drug dealers, gang-bangers, brawlers and boozers that we knew would get drunk and then drive.
Let’s move onto bartenders briefly before reverting to the tax lady. Even though it’s against the rules, it is commonplace for bartenders to overpour drinks in exchange for bigger tips. And they also help themselves to drinks when the owner is not present.
So when the tax lady measures booze ordered against booze sold, there is a discrepancy — and she wants sales tax on that discrepancy, even though she knows from the books such booze was not sold to customers.
“You mean I have to pay sales tax on whatever the bartender steals?”
Yup, that’s what she meant.
In other words, screwed from both ends.
My clever accountant saved the day, turning a multi-thousand-dollar tax bill into zero due to several Franchise Board miscalculations.
This accountant, a partner in his own dive bar, enjoyed repeating a pearl of wisdom he’d cultivated from his own experience: “Nothing good can happen between midnight and 2 in the morning.”
Indeed. That is the magic window of time when fights break out. And what you need to know is this: Dive bar patrons don’t fight because they don’t like one another, they fight because they like fighting. The feeling of pain, and inflicting pain, gets their endorphins flowing. In other words, as with drinking, they do it because it makes them feel good.
(When I bought my bar, one of the first things I did was set up rock salt candles on the bar to give the place an ambient glow. Dave, a seasoned bartender I inherited, took one look at my illuminations and said, “These may look like candles to you, but after midnight they are missiles.”)
ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW BOARD
At some point, I decided to paint the exterior of the bar.
Not long after, an enforcement officer from the city bureau-crazy ordered me to repaint it back the way it was.
That is because, in Santa Barbara, you are not allowed to paint the building in which you own a business.
Even if you own the building.
If you want to paint your building a different shade, you must apply to Santa Barbara’s Architectural Review Board.
This is not a simple application.
You must supply blueprints of the property, conduct comparative studies of all the properties around yours, pay fees, always fees, high fees, every step of the way — an arduous process that includes attending several monthly Review Board meetings and will likely take well beyond a year.
For a simple exterior paint job.
“So, Mr. Eringer, you want to paint your exterior a darker shade of tan — have you considered the implications this would have on your neighborhood?”
“Um, if you ever visit the corner of San Andres and Arrellaga, you will discover that anything would be an improvement.”
Same goes for changing signage — even a minor change.
If you are a cannabis grower, however, you can get a permit almost overnight. (Thank 1st District Supervisor Das William for that. And that’s another story, upcoming in this column).
Worst of all is the Labor Commission.
The sole purpose of this state bureau-crazy, perhaps the craziest and laziest of all, is always to side with disgruntled ex-employees, however outrageous their claims, whatever documentary evidence and testimony exists to the contrary — and award them huge sums of money. A Robin Hood-mentality based on nothing more than horse-feathers.
On the positive side, one of the most interesting lessons I learned is that you can run a dive bar (in fact, most bars) on fewer than 10 labels of booze. This is because people generally stick to their tipple of choice — usually a high-profile, well-advertised brand.
Ultimately (aside from NFL Ticket and Karaoke, throw in a pool table), a dive bar is about booze.
After redecorating my bar with fine art, sculpture and directional lighting, a seasoned drinker walked up and down, fully appreciating the aesthetic I had created.
“Nice job,” he said. Then he added: “But you realize, you didn’t have to do any of this. Your customers are here for one thing and one thing only.”
Alcohol is why people come to a bar.
Some want it. Most need it.
But they aren’t here for the art or the pretty bartender.
They want a drink. They want it the way they like it.
And they want it now.
THE ABCs OF THE BAR BIZ
A is for Alcohol, the most used and abused stress reliever in the world.
B is for Bartender, a therapist who knows how to mix basic cocktails, work quickly under pressure and understand rudimentary math. And knowing judo wouldn’t hurt.
C is for Cocktails, which are a labor-intensive nuisance when the bar gets slammed and only one bartender is on duty.
D is for Drinkology, my own term for the sociology of drinking alcohol, covering everything from lack of etiquette to another D word: Drunkenness.
E is for Entertainment. Most drinkers entertain themselves and others around them when they have a drink in hand. Alcohol animates people, lubricates the tongue and loosens inhibitions. Which means the best entertainment is usually the drinker him-or-herself — even if that person doesn’t know it
F is for Flavored Vodka, the most revolting rubbish on earth, especially marshmallow, pumpkin and cookie dough.
G is for Gin. Don’t listen to James Bond: You’re supposed to stir, not shake. Shaking bruises gin and transforms it into a crystalline mess when its surface should actually be as smooth as a lake on a still evening.
G is also for Galiano. Nobody drinks this Italian liqueur anymore, but every bar has a bottle close to hand. Why? Because Galiano’s bottle is a miniature baseball bat and thus the bartender’s last line of defense.
H is for Hangover. You cannot drink a lot of booze without paying the piper next morning. Conventional wisdom is best: Don’t drink too much, snack while you eat, sip water. The Chinese tested every so-called hangover remedy known to mankind and determined that the very best remedy is Sprite.
J is for Jukebox. These days, jukeboxes connect to the Internet and access hundreds of thousands of songs. Given the choice of everything, it is tragic what actually gets played most of the time: rap, hip-hop and heavy metal.
K is for Karaoke, as much a mainstay in bars these days as Monday Night Football — but never both at the same time unless you like brawls. In addition to entertaining yourself and others (assuming your voice truly entertains the latter, usually not), Karaoke is excellent therapy. There is nothing like singing your heart out to feel better instead of paying a therapist $175 an hour.
L is for Liquor, which must be purchased only from wholesalers approved by Alcoholic Beverage Control. This is a racket. Two companies own the wholesale distribution rights to most brands, and there is little competition between the two because each distributes different brands without any overlapping products. Which essentially means that these two companies have a monopoly on their brands.
“You mean to tell me,” I said to one supplier, “that in the state of California, I can only buy Jameson whiskey from you?” He replied, “No, we have 33 states tied up.”
M is for Music. Live music, which gets people dancing. Then the bar gets fined for not having a “dance license.”
N is for Nugacious, which applies to most bar banter. (“Trifling, trivial, insignificant …”)
O is for Obstreperous, which is what a bar becomes after 11:33 pm. (“Noisy and difficult to control.”)
P is for Pickled Eggs, a foolproof sign that you are in a dive bar.
Q is for Quaff-tide: “The season of drinking.” In other words, every day is quaff-tide in a dive bar.
R is for Regulars. They arrive around the same time every evening, order the same libations and stick around for the same amount of time, day after day. If they’re celebrating a special occasion, they’re in your bar. If they’re commiserating a tragedy, they’re in your bar. And if it’s just a normal day, well …
S is for Scams. An example: Safety Services Company calls your bar and tries to sound official, insinuating you are required by law to buy their product: mere printed posters of state compliance rules, for which they attempt to charge hundreds of dollars.
T is for television. Sadly, a staple in most bars, where most eyes divert by default.
U stumps us; make up your own.
V is for Vodka, the most overrated member of the booze family. It’s odorless and definitely tasteless, without distinctive character. This is why the market is flooded with flavored vodkas for immature drinkers. Fortunately, there are many uses for vodka besides drinking it.
W is for Well Liquor. This is the generic booze a bartender pours if you do not specify which brand you want. Always specify.
Never drink from the Well. Why not? Dive bars cut their costs by serving the cheapest crap they can buy as their Well. It costs them about $6.50 a bottle and is as near as poisonous rotgut to any booze anyone can drink, easily disguised by sweet mixers.
W is also for Wine. As in, under no circumstances order wine in a dive bar.
X is for Xenophobia: a priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a bar — and the eyes of all regulars are riveted upon these invaders.
Y is for Yelp, the online review service, whose very name aptly means to utter a sharp quick shrill or cry. Yelp, the company, allows crybabies to vent, for sure, but takes the definition a step further: 1. Yelp allows fraudsters to post fake reviews anonymously. 2. Yelp uses such reviews to coerce (some say extort) restaurants and bars to advertise with them — i.e., pay them money to bury fraudulent bad reviews and highlight good reviews.
Z is for Zooscopy. As in, bring on the pink elephants.
Robert Eringer is a longtime Montecito author with vast experience in investigative journalism. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.