Business balance – Restaurants make about 30% from liquor sales, yet some argue DWI checkpoints are unfairly stacked in certain areas.
For two years, Gene Todaro ran Marcello’s, a popular restaurant on Perkins Road in Southdowns. It regularly drew a steady crowd of patrons, who came both for the hearty Italian fare and the happening bar scene.
But while Todaro did a brisk business, he was troubled by a complaint he frequently heard from his customers.
“People would actually tell me, ‘We know your area is a target for DWI stops, so you’re not going to see us anymore,’” Todaro recalls. “And we wouldn’t. Some of them stopped coming.”
Todaro has since closed the restaurant so he can focus on another restaurant he is opening in New Orleans. Still, the issue troubles him, two years later, as it does many local restaurant owners, who complain that south Baton Rouge is a target for a Baton Rouge Police Department that is increasingly aggressive—unfairly so, say some—about making as many DWI arrests as possible.
It’s a sticky situation for restaurant owners, who have built their businesses in a food-loving community where dining out is a pastime and wine or beer is as much a part of many meals as the steak or fried seafood. No one wants to promote drunk driving, of course. But when 30% of restaurant revenues, on average, come from liquor sales, what are business owners to do?
“It’s a touchy topic,” says T.J. Ribs owner Kevin Kimball. “Responsible businesspeople have to balance their business and the greater good of the community.”
Finding that balance is hard, particularly when driving while intoxicated is as much a social taboo as it is a felony. Last month, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended lowering the legal blood-alcohol level from .08 to .05. If the change is adopted, some people won’t even be able to safely drive after a single alcoholic beverage.
For local restaurant owners, though, the frustration is not so much with the law per se. Rather, it’s with the way the law appears to be selectively enforced and also with the fact that patrons who wish to dine out and drink—in this city, at least—have few alternative modes of transportation, save for a designated driver.
As for the enforcement, that’s a touchy subject within a touchy subject, and many restaurant and bar owners don’t like to talk about it. The perception exists that BRPD’s DWI task force unfairly targets restaurants and bars in well-heeled areas of the city, staking out the parking lots of those establishments and following patrons at random, just waiting for an excuse to pull them over and subject them to a field sobriety test or Breathalyzer.
“It’s unfair because the BRPD no longer goes out and patrols the streets looking for drunk drivers,” says attorney Glynn Delatte, a former Louisiana state trooper who used to make DWI arrests and now defends DWI cases. “They follow people home from restaurants and bars and pull them over for things like a burned-out license plate bulb.”
Nonsense, says BRPD spokesman Lt. Don Kelly, who adds that the department doesn’t target any particular neighborhood or establishment. However, the task force does concentrate on areas where there have been a large number of DWI arrests in the past, which explains why the task force sets up along, say, Nicholson Drive following football games in Tiger Stadium. The department also tends to focus on “major thoroughfares where there is both a decent amount of vehicular traffic and where a checkpoint can be safely set up with minimal disruption,” Kelly says.
As to the assertion the BRPD has become increasingly aggressive in its pursuit of DWI offenders, Kelly says statistics do not bear that out. The number of DWI arrests so far this year is on par with where it has been for the past several years. Between January and April, the BRPD made 396 arrests. That’s about 9% more than were made during the same period last year and about 1% more than were made during the first four months of 2011.
“There’s not a great deal of variation from year to year,” Kelly says. “Our DWI numbers have been consistent for about as long as I can remember.”
Regardless, anecdotal evidence suggests that patrons feel increasingly nervous about getting pulled over, which brings up the second problem—namely, that patrons who choose to dine and drink have few options in this city when it comes to transportation.
“We have no mass transit in this city, we don’t have walkable communities and we don’t have good taxi service,” says Delatte, who recalls waiting more than one hour on a recent Tuesday night for a cab to pick up his friend at Sammy’s on Highland Road. “When the cab finally did come, about nine o’clock, [the cab driver] didn’t want to give the guy a ride because he’d been drinking. I was like, ‘That’s why we called you, buddy.’?”
Given the lack of options, some restaurant owners are getting proactive and coming up with their own creative solutions. Ruffino’s owner Ruffin Rodrigue bought a 14-passenger limo van last year and now offers free, door-to-door service to his Highland Road restaurant to customers who call in advance. It’s not a moneymaker but it keeps customers happy.
“We have four to five pickups a night,” Rodrigue says. “It’s sexy, it’s fun.”
In fact, Rodrigue is so pleased with the success of the program, he is planning to replicate it in Lafayette, where he recently opened a Ruffino’s in the River Ranch TND. Since the community is smaller and inherently walkable, Rodrigue is purchasing a golf cart, not another limo bus. Still, the goal is the same.
“We don’t want our customers to have to drink and drive,” he says.
But it’s a pricey solution that most restaurants simply cannot afford.
“A meal for eight people at Ruffino’s will easily top $1,000 or $1,200. At my restaurant, it might be a couple of hundred,” says one local restaurateur, who asked not to be named. “They can afford a limo. My margins are not that high.”
Sullivan’s Steakhouse—which, at College Drive and Interstate 10, is also located in an area known for its DWI patrols—takes a different tack. It tries to be proactive by training every member of its wait staff and requiring all servers, bartenders and hostesses to get liquor licenses from the state and the parish.
“If we think someone is intoxicated, we cut them off,” says Lee Verde, Sullivan’s manager.
Verde also hires an off-duty police officer to patrol the restaurant’s parking lot. It’s a safety measure, unrelated to DWI patrols. But Verde says it has the effect of keeping patrons on their toes.
“Maybe it just makes people more aware,” he says.
Beyond that, restaurant owners say the only other thing they can do is to make the city aware of the challenges and try to come up with community-wide solutions to the fact that Baton Rouge has no alternative to offer those who want to participate in a nightlife scene, to the extent there is one.
Todaro points to New Orleans as an example of the kinds of options that can be created. Though he still lives in Baton Rouge, he spends a lot of his time in New Orleans, where he is opening a new restaurant on St. Charles Avenue downtown. He says taxis are everywhere, not only in the touristy parts of downtown and the French Quarter but also Uptown, where Todaro and his friends are fond of frequenting the many neighborhood restaurants.
“There’s an army of cabs, and they’re all pretty cheap,” he says.
New Orleans also has a mode of mass transit that is popular across the demographic spectrum—the streetcar line. Tourists and locals alike use it to travel from the heart of the downtown Riverfront all the way to the Carrollton section of Uptown, where there are hundreds of restaurants within walking distance of the streetcar tracks.
“Everyone I know there walks, takes taxis or takes streetcars when they go out to eat,” Todaro says. “I live in Southdowns here and I’m not opposed to walking anywhere.”
CATS officials say they’re exploring the possibility of creating small, community lines that would offer bus service to certain areas of the city on a limited basis. Government Street, which periodically has art hop nights at the Mid City galleries along the thoroughfare, or the restaurant-heavy stretch of Perkins Road between the overpass and Perkins Rowe are two possible routes.
“We want to have a quick-on-and-off system to use, mostly for special occasions,” says CATS board Chairman Isaiah Marshall. “We’re just kind of looking at it as a way to help patrons out.”?But such a plan is still in the formative stages and is likely months from becoming reality.
In the meantime, restaurateurs say they continue to press for solutions and to encourage their patrons to drink responsibly. But they wish they could do more.
“If we had a more walkable, more transit-friendly city, a city that didn’t require everyone to drive everywhere, at least we would have a few more options,” says Todaro. “Instead, we built our city around gated communities, so this is what we’re stuck with.”