SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's liquor regulators want you to know two things.
For starters, they're not automatons. And they also aren't responsible for the state's quirky liquor laws.
Following a steady stream of criticism and what it believes are long-held misconceptions about its role, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has released a series of short videos aimed at answering common questions and frustrations.
"It’s been kind of a faceless bureaucracy that nobody really knows, so we decided to do more outreach," said department spokesman Terry Wood. "It’s basically just to let people know we’re human beings, we’re your neighbors, we live in Utah, too, and we’re just doing a job."
The agency's Salt Lake City mailbox fills with letters from consumers slamming Utah's alcohol policy and demanding new stores closer to home, Wood said. He believes many Utahns, whether or not they drink alcohol, don't know what the DABC does. The agency is tasked with overseeing retail sales of alcohol and issuing liquor licenses, but it's the Legislature that has passed such laws banning cold beer from liquor stores and wine from grocery store shelves.
In three short documentary-style YouTube videos, Wood, a retired broadcast journalist, interviews department officers about how customers can request special orders, why Utah's stores remain crowded and how prices are set.
Cade Meier, deputy director, acknowledges in one of the taped conversations with Wood that Utah currently has 45 liquor stores, but could have up to 66 under a population-based limit established by the Legislature.
"The good news is we’re headed in the right direction," Meier said, with a Syracuse shop set to open in time for the winter holidays. A Herriman store also is planned, and so is an expansion in Salt Lake City's Foothill Drive shop.
The new buildings are designed to look more inviting than the dim, cinderblock shops currently in operation.
"We’re trying to design new stores that are customer-friendly," Meier said.
The change in approach applies to how employees interact with shoppers, too. The agency in 2016 began offering an eight-week sommelier course for store employees that helps them suggest pairings and answer questions about how certain wines taste and where the grapes are grown.
The changes follow years of criticism, and not just from customers.
The department has come under fire from lawmakers and others who have derided low pay rates and poor morale among employees in its state-run stores. In 2012, audits found the DABC was rife with mismanagement and the office was restructured.
Three years ago, the hourly wage for liquor store employees generally started at $9, Utah Sen. Karen Mayne said at the time. The West Valley Democrat sponsored a 2017 law allowing the agency to keep $1 million more of the $400 million in sales it generates, helping to lift the pay and buy equipment.
Postings for the jobs on Utah's jobseeker website point to slightly higher wages now, at about $11 to $13, depending on the location.
The department has more than 600 employees, with about 500 working in its stores and the rest split between its warehouse and administrative office, according to figures provided by Wood.
"We try to provide good customer service to our customers, and we’re trying to get better at that. We also have to be mindful of those who would rather not even whisper the word alcohol. That’s part of the way our charter is and the way we operate, and it’s just a fact of life here," Wood said. "We operate within those parameters."