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It's a sign: Utah restaurants, bars post notices to comply with new law

SALT LAKE CITY — The downtown lunch crowd didn't seem to notice the new signs posted in Utah bars and restaurants that serve alcohol Tuesday, the ones now required to inform people that they are either in a restaurant or a bar.

A woman waiting for a bento box at Takashi on Market Street studied the sign on the entryway window but didn't really know what it meant until she was told it's now a state law to clearly distinguish a restaurant from a bar and vice versa.

"It's Utah," she said, adding she's Mormon and has lived back East. "I just don't think it's going to do a whole lot."

The 1,433 establishments that are licensed to serve alcohol in Utah were to have signs up Tuesday reading, "This premise is licensed as a BAR not a restaurant" or "This premise is licensed as a RESTAURANT not a bar."

Utah might be the first state in the country to require such notice. State lawmakers approved the requirement earlier this year as part of an omnibus liquor bill.

State officials say the intent is to avoid any confusion about what customers are walking into. As state alcohol commission Chairman John T. Nielsen said last month, "A restaurant is a restaurant and bar is a bar, never the twain shall meet." Under state law, restaurants must derive 70 percent of their sales from food.

Melva Sine, Utah Restaurant Association executive director, said she is concerned that the notices will cause people, especially tourists, to think they can't get a drink in a restaurant or food in a bar, which is not the case.

"The signs are a little frustrating at this point in time," she said.

Piper Down owner Dave Morris worries that people will think his State Street pub doesn't have a kitchen. Food accounts for 40 percent of his sales, he said.

"Telling people what you're not is a lot less effective than telling them what you are," Morris said on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show."

The new signs must be at least 8 ½-by-11 inches in size and "conspicuously" displayed at the entrance. The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control produced a template on a sheet of white paper, but restaurants and bars may put up a more attractive sign if they choose.

Amrol Hararah, who has owned Sicilia Pizza Kitchen on 300 South for 22 years, taped a photocopy of the department's sample — with green lettering — in the front window of his restaurant. Takashi went with a decorative sign designed by a local ad agency and supplied by the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association.

"It doesn't make sense to me, to be honest with you," Hararah said.

Visitors to Utah will wonder what's going on and feel uncomfortable, he said. A couple of regulars outside the pizza parlor said they would assume they couldn't get a beer with a slice.

The manager at Cheers to You on Main Street said the signs won't affect business at all because people know it's a bar when they walk in.

"If they don't, and don't have any kind of situational awareness, I'm not going to have them in here," he said.

The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control doesn't intend to use a heavy hand to enforce the new law, at least not on the first day.

"We're not going to be running out and taking a look to make sure they got it up," spokesman Terry Wood said. "I don't think anyone is going to get fined off the bat."

Compliance officers will check for the signs during regular inspections, which take place once a year for alcohol permit holders, he said.

The law doesn't spell out a specific penalty for not having the sign posted, but the alcohol commission could treat it the same as other violations which might result in a suspended liquor license or fine.