NAMPA — JaK’s Place Neighborhood Grill in Nampa is $100 per day away from being profitable.
JaK’s Place owners, husband and wife Jeff and Kathy Ussery and their daughter Hailey, wanted to make up that difference by obtaining a liquor license to serve a wider range of drinks, which their customers were requesting. Jeff Ussery said he thought it would be easy to get the license, because the Nampa City Council easily approved a beer and wine license for the restaurant in 2018.
But Nampa City Council denied the liquor license on Dec. 2 because of the restaurant’s proximity to a church and school. It was the third example in a series of inconsistent decisions by the council on whether alcohol licenses should be issued to businesses near a school or church.
Hailey Ussery said a friend told her ”Nampa’s giving themselves a bad name for business.”
According to Title 23 of Idaho code, alcohol licenses allowing the sale of beer, wine or liquor by the drink are illegal when a business is within 300 feet of a public school, church or any other place of worship, “except with the approval of the governing body of the municipality.”
Because of this law, businesses within 300 feet of a school or church must apply for a waiver through the local governing body to receive an alcohol license. The churches or schools near the business seeking the waiver are notified by the governing body, and are given the chance to voice opposition or support for the alcohol license before the decision.
Over the past four months, Nampa City Council allowed an alcohol license for one business near a church, and denied alcohol licenses for two other businesses near churches, including JaK’s Place.
Alcohol sales are often a major source of profit for restaurants nationwide. According to a report from Modern Restaurant Management, alcohol sales make up 20-25% of the average profit for restaurants across the U.S.
Nampa council members have acknowledged the council’s inconsistency in previous meetings.
“If we interpret (the law) this way for one business, but we interpret it another way for another business … what message is that sending to our community?” Councilwoman Sandi Levi said at a council meeting Oct. 7.
Councilman Darl Bruner said moving forward, he would like the council to stick to Idaho law and deny alcohol licenses for businesses within 300 feet of a school or church, even if the church or school doesn’t oppose the license. Hailey Ussery said such a move could deter new businesses from coming to Nampa.
JaK’s Place opened as Soda Stop in early 2018, near the College of Western Idaho and a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints meetinghouse on the other side of Birch Lane. Kathy Ussery said her family rebranded the restaurant in 2019 to JaK’s Place to move toward more formal dining and appeal to a wider customer base.
A few weeks after JaK’s Place opened, Kathy Ussery said her family secured the waiver to allow them a beer and wine license. The license allows them to serve beer, wine and other non-distilled beverages at or below 14% alcohol. JaK’s Place’s menu includes 17 options for alcoholic drinks including margaritas, Bloody Marys and White Claw hard seltzers.
Despite this, Hailey Ussery said multiple times a week, potential customers have entered JaK’s Place, checked out the menu, and left because they didn’t have a wider selection of mixed drinks or the name brand liquor they’re seeking. About 250 customers have signed a petition supporting a liquor license for the restaurant, Kathy Ussery said.
Kathy Ussery said the council easily approved the restaurant’s waiver for a beer and wine license back in 2018. She said for this decision, the city only notified CWI officials of the alcohol license application, because the city has been inconsistent about how it applies the 300 feet rule set in state code.
Idaho law states that the 300 feet is “measured in a straight line to the nearest entrance to the licensed premises.” In 2018, the city measured the restaurant’s proximity to the church from the restaurant’s entrance to the church’s front door, which was longer than 300 feet. In 2019, when JaK’s Place sought a liquor license waiver, the city measured the proximity from the restaurant’s front door to the church’s property line, which was shorter than 300 feet.
On both occasions, neither CWI officials nor members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints voiced opposition to JaK’s Place getting a beer, wine or liquor license. The council members’ views on the subject, however, had changed.
Each city gets a certain number of state-allotted liquor licenses based on its population. Nampa has granted 51 of its 65 liquor licenses, according to Idaho State Police spokeswoman Tecia Ferguson.
Over the past year, council members have expressed concern over the city having too many businesses that serve alcohol.
In April, then-Councilman Bruce Skaug recommended Nampa set a lower limit to the liquor licenses the city can approve for businesses interested in opening in downtown Nampa. The suggestion was well-received among the council members, but they never voted on an ordinance.
“I just don’t want downtown Nampa to become one big bar,” Skaug said.
When JaK’s Place sought a waiver to get its liquor license, the council voted 4-1 to deny the request. Skaug was not present at the meeting, but sent a letter expressing that he was against granting the business a liquor license.
Nampa’s Chief of Staff Rick Hogaboam, who was still a council member at the time of the meeting, was the sole dissenting vote. He said that because state code gives authority to the local governing bodies to grant the waivers, he didn’t see an issue with allowing it if there was no opposition from the church or school near the restaurant.
Bruner argued that the city should stand by the 300-foot rule the state set. He said he plans to honor the law until the state changes it, although he acknowledged that he made the motion to grant JaK’s Place its their waiver for a beer and wine license back in 2018.
“We have not been consistent, and that’s my apology,” Bruner said at the meeting.
Hailey Ussery said she wanted to appeal the decision, because she and her parents didn’t feel adequately prepared at the December meeting to explain how important a liquor license would be for their business. She said she contacted the Nampa Clerk’s Office to ask how she could file an appeal, and Nampa City Clerk Deborah Rosin responded by sending her a letter explaining that said she could not seek an appeal.
“The action of the Nampa City Council on your application was a final agency action and you have exhausted your administrative remedies,” according to the letter, provided to the Idaho Press. “I am unaware of any right to appeal to the City.”
Nampa city attorney Douglas Waterman said alcohol license decisions do not have an internal appeal process under Nampa’s city code. Hailey Ussery said in order to appeal the decision, her family would likely need to get a lawyer and sue the city, but they can’t afford it.
V-Cut Lounge is a cigar lounge that opened downtown in early December. It has a full bar, so co-owner Tim Wangler sought a license to serve beer, wine and liquor. He also had to apply for a waiver because the lounge is within 300 feet of the Bible Pentecostal Church in downtown Nampa. The council unanimously granted the waiver April 15.
“And then it was downhill from there,” Wangler said.
Several months later, Carolyn Kling Keech, Mayor Debbie Kling’s mother-in-law and owner of Green Barley Nutrition Center downtown, filed an appeal on the conditional-use permit for V-Cut Lounge, which was approved by Nampa’s Planning and Zoning Commission in August.
The issue went before city council, and Mayor Kling recused herself from the council discussion and decision because of her relation to the appellant.
If the appeal were granted, it would effectively revoke the lounge’s alcohol license. Waterman said this appeal was legal because it was an appeal of a conditional-use permit, which is allowed under city code.
By the time of the appeal, Wangler had already put thousands of dollars into V-Cut Lounge’s development. Wangler said if the council granted the appeal, it would have bankrupted him.
More than a dozen people testified during the public hearing on the appeal on Oct. 7. Kling Keech also presented the council with a petition with more than 200 signatures of residents against V-Cut Lounge.
Wangler described the hearing as “the most disastrous meeting I’ve ever been a part of.” At one point, an older resident who was testifying broke out into opera to prove how strong his vocal chords were because he didn’t smoke or drink alcohol.
The residents who testified at the hearing were pretty evenly split on the issue. Many of the residents expressed concerns that the lounge was promoting dangerous habits like smoking and drinking, while others argued that the business would be beneficial for downtown.
V-Cut Lounge’s co-owner Mike Gadd said the council should stay true to its original decision when it approved the waiver request in April.
“Businesses make investments when the rules are clear,” Gadd said. “And we were pretty sure the rules were clear.”
Members of the Bible Pentecostal Church did not submit an opposition to V-Cut Lounge’s waiver request back in April, but David Ferdinand, a former Canyon County commissioner who represented the church at several council meetings, said the church was always against the license.
Ferdinand said the church’s pastor, Rick Bray, was notified about the lounge’s intention to seek the license on the Friday before the Monday meeting April 15. Bray couldn’t attend the meeting due to prior commitments, Ferdinand said, so he called the city clerk’s office to voice his opposition, and he was told to submit a letter voicing his opinion. Bray did not submit a letter.
Bray submitted a letter to the council for the appeal in October. In the letter, Bray said he did not attend the April meeting because he assumed the council would uphold the state code and deny the request based on the 300-foot rule.
At the end of the October public hearing, the council denied the appeal and allowed V-Cut Lounge to retain its conditional-use permit. Bruner said he was only voting to uphold the previous decision because he wants the council to remain consistent in its actions.
“I am totally against smoking. I am totally against drinking,” Bruner said. “I am totally against any more bars coming in downtown Nampa.”
Ferdinand filed a request for reconsideration of the appeal, because he felt the council did not follow proper protocol. The council denied Ferdinand’s request for reconsideration.
The Block is a barbecue restaurant downtown owned by Adam Hutchings, who also owns the catering company H&M Meats. V-Cut Lounge is in the same building, and Hutchings is the landlord.
Hutchings said he wanted to get a beer and wine license for the restaurant to expand its dining hours. Previously, the restaurant was only open for lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Block has since expanded its hours to 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Friday with dinner hours on Friday from 5-7:30 p.m.
Hutchings said several customers have requested that The Block offer alcohol, particularly during dinner hours.
“It’s difficult for a restaurant to sustain itself without at least beer and wine,” Hutchings said.
Ferguson said the state does not set a limit on the number of beer and wine licenses a city can approve. Nampa has issued 104 beer and wine licenses.
Because The Block is also within 300 feet of the Bible Pentecostal Church, Hutchings had to apply for a waiver to get the beer and wine license. Ferdinand said the church members decided not to fight the request, and told the council this at its Nov. 18 meeting, when it considered the waiver.
“They want to be good neighbors,” Ferdinand said.
Despite the church not opposing the license, the council denied Hutchings’ request. Bruner said he wasn’t going to go against state law as his reasoning for his opposition.
“It would almost be adding insult to injury to the church to allow another (license) even closer than the other,” Councilman Randy Haverfield said.
Hutchings said he still hopes to secure a beer and wine license in the future, and is working with city officials to make it happen. He said members of the Bible Pentecostal Church are supportive of him seeking the license.
Although residents can’t appeal alcohol license decisions by the council, Waterman said business owners can resubmit their applications for a license in the future.
For most subjects discussed by Nampa City Council, the majority of the council usually favors a more hands-off approach to city government. For this issue, however, the council has struggled to be consistent in its decisions.
The majority of Nampa’s council members have expressed that the city should uphold state code and deny alcohol licenses requested near a church or school, regardless of whether representatives from the churches or schools are OK with it. Councilman Victor Rodriguez said he is concerned that if the council sets a precedent by allowing a bar to open near a church, that will allow more bars to start opening near churches all over the city.
“That’s unacceptable. Period. That I won’t budge on,” Rodriguez said.
Hogaboam, who previously worked as a pastor, saw the issue differently. He said that because the state code gives local governing bodies the authority to grant waivers, he believes it is acceptable to grant alcohol licenses provided representatives from the churches or schools near the establishment aren’t opposed to it. If representatives from a church or school oppose the license, then he said he wouldn’t support the request.
“If the affected parties don’t object, I’m not going to be more restrictive as a council member,” Hogaboam said.
Hogaboam said his opinion on the subject is common among other cities in the Treasure Valley, which other local officials backed up. Boise City Council President Elaine Clegg and Meridian City Councilman Luke Cavener said their cities don’t get waiver requests often, but if representatives from the church or school near the business did not disapprove of that business having an alcohol license, they would likely approve the license.
Now, Hogaboam is not a council member, and serves as the city’s chief of staff. His new position means he won’t vote on future alcohol license requests that come before the council.
Kling acknowledged that the council has not been consistent, and said she hopes to “clean up” the city’s processes. She said the council should discuss its position on waiver requests for alcohol licenses, but there are also some legal details that should be clarified.
Kling said the city should make clear how it measures if a business is within 300 feet of a church or school. She also wants clarity on how city officials notify churches or schools that a business near them is seeking an alcohol license, and the ways church members or school officials can express their position on the requested license.
At Nampa City Council’s latest meeting Feb. 3, the council decided to schedule a workshop to discuss the city’s process for conditional use permits. Part of that discussion, Kling said, will clarify the council’s position on alcohol licenses.
Several council members and Kling said they don’t think the council’s precedent on alcohol licenses will impact the city’s ability to recruit new business. Local business owners tell a different story.
The owners of JaK’s Place and V-Cut Lounge both said if they had known what they would have to go through to try to get an alcohol license in Nampa, they would have opened in a different city. Hutchings said he was dedicated to opening his business in Nampa — where he lives — but if he had known, he would have at least strongly considered locating in other cities.
Although Wangler retained his alcohol license for V-Cut Lounge, he said the appeal process had a negative impact on his business by delaying the opening. The lounge held a soft opening in December, three months past the target opening in September.
Wangler said “it’s water under the bridge” in regard to his relationship with the church and neighboring downtown businesses that opposed his license. But he said the council set “a dangerous precedent” that could negatively impact incoming business levels. For restaurants and other businesses that may want to serve alcohol, it will be easier to get approval from other cities.
“You’re going to take the path of least resistance,” Wangler said.
Hutchings agreed that the Nampa council’s mindset on alcohol licenses is troubling and said it could hurt the city’s ability to recruit new businesses and hinder development downtown. For the past few years, Nampa officials have been working to revitalize the city’s downtown.
Jeff and Kathy Ussery have pulled money from their savings to keep the business afloat, Hailey Ussery said. The family is certain that a liquor license would make the difference in their restaurant being profitable. In the fourth quarter of 2019, Jeff Ussery said beer and wine sales was the restaurant’s highest seller. About 75% of their tables order at least one glass of beer or wine, Kathy Ussery said.
Hailey Ussery is concerned that emerging competition will hurt their business further. She said other businesses nearby can get a liquor license without applying for a waiver because they are more than 300 feet away from a school or church. If more businesses open near JaK’s Place that can offer drinks their restaurant can’t, Kathy Ussery believes they might lose the business altogether.
Business owners still must go through the city to get an alcohol license, but if they don’t need a waiver, those items are typically put on the consent agenda for council meetings, Hogaboam said. The consent agendas are often approved with little to no discussion at the start of each meeting.
Although JaK’s Place can’t serve a wider selection of drinks without a liquor license, Jeff Ussery said the restaurant plans to offer some vegan menu items in the near future, which they hope will also appeal to a larger audience.
“Fortunately, we don’t need to go through the city council to approve that,” Jeff Ussery said.