With the Zion Wall Still Standing, One Restaurant Owner Responds

Editor’s note: The following is a lightly-edited transcription of an interview with Blake Ballard, owner of Spark Restaurant in Provo.

Libertas Institute: In your understanding, what is the “Zion Curtain”?

Blake Ballard: I believe it’s actually now called the “Zion Wall.” A lot of people don’t know that, and even the Salt Lake Tribune was referring to it inaccurately throughout this legislative session. The curtain was the old way in which drinks had to be prepared. They got rid of the old system, and the wall is now the premise that any alcoholic product, whether it’s beer, wine, or liquor, has to be stored and prepared outside of public view.

LI: So when a customer orders a drink, you can mix the non-alcoholic portion of it in their view, but if you add alcohol, you have to take it elsewhere?

Ballard: Right, and this is an area of a little bit of confusion. I’ve talked to various members of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) and initially they told me the entire drink had to be prepared outside of public sight. I had a meeting recently with Senator Valentine and he felt like he was willing to push so that only the alcoholic portion had to be done elsewhere. But then I called DABC afterwards and they said no, it’s only the pouring of the alcohol that has to happen in private.

LI: Do you feel that some of that misunderstanding about the actual requirements stems from the legislature trying to micromanage how things are done?

Ballard: Not necessarily. I think there’s some confusion on multiple angles, though. Obviously when a law is written they’ll use certain wording, and then the affected agencies have to interpret that wording and create rules to implement them. I feel mostly that there’s just a general misunderstanding on the part of 90% of the legislature as to how the law actually even works, and how it affects people.

I was very surprised in this recent session when I went to give testimony in committee as to how many of those legislators really had no idea what the law even was. When I heard legislators saying “Why, when I go to Chili’s, can I eat by the bar and see them make drinks?” The fact that they didn’t know that there is a grandfathering provision within the law, which allows probably 80-90% of restaurants who had their license prior to 2009, continue to serve and pour publicly — the fact that they didn’t know that suggests, to me, that they don’t know what’s even going on.

I don’t think the Zion Wall is necessarily supported by the legislature, I just don’t think it’s supported in being overturned. Many don’t want to change it simply because they don’t want to be the one to help do it.

LI: Do you consider it problematic that the legislature is passing laws about things it does not understand? 

Ballard: Oh, absolutely. I can sympathize with them, slightly, because I’m sure it’s difficult to know everything about every bill being proposed, or current laws. That’s why they have public comment and even lobbyists, to some degree. But I was frustrated when I went to give testimony on the bill to get rid of the Zion Wall because it received ten minutes of attention after spending a long time on other bills, like one dealing with the gold standard, which doesn’t have as much relevance.

I’m not upset that they don’t understand. I hope they’re doing their best. But it’s a byproduct of the system that they are passing laws without understanding the issue. It’s much like Congress, where nobody understands things like Obamacare before voting for it. Same issue here.

LI: How has the Zion Wall impacted your business? 

Ballard: There’s a very uneven playing field. Because of the grandfather provision, I would estimate that 80-90% of current restaurants with a permit don’t have to abide by the Zion Wall policy, because their bar structure was grandfathered in when the policy was put in place.

If the legislature truly believes that the public sight of alcohol being poured is contributing to people dying on the roads and minors drinking, then let’s address 90% of the restaurants that are continuing to pour publicly. So to me, they don’t really believe that. If they did, then they would have the law apply equally to every restaurant.

I think there are places and circumstances in which grandfathering is a good idea, but I think it just shows in this case that the legislature in 2009 wanted to “do something” without getting all the existing restaurants upset. They didn’t want to face an amazing amount of backlash. So with the grandfathering clause the existing establishments didn’t care, and the new restaurants didn’t know about it or have the resources to do something about it.

I wasn’t serving alcohol in 2009 here at Spark, so it wasn’t an issue then for me. But now I’m being unfairly burdened by the policy. So the legislature was able to play both sides, appeasing Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the LDS Church, the PTA, and other such groups, while sidestepping everybody else who wasn’t affected by how the Zion Wall was implemented.

Spark’s closet, office, and Zion Wall-complaint liquor location. Click the enlarge.

LI: So a customer enters your restaurant and orders alcohol. You have a bar here, which you can’t use for selling drinks. How then are alcoholic drinks served at Spark?

Ballard: First you have to understand that our restaurant was built before the Zion Wall policy was implemented. But because I didn’t apply for an alcohol license until after, we still had to abide by the new law since we didn’t previously have a license to get grandfathered in.

When somebody comes in, they must have the intent to dine, which is part of Utah law. You have to order food in order to drink in a restaurant. That I’m okay with, because I am a restaurant, and it helps me out to make people order food.

If I’m a customer, whether at a table or at the bar structure, the employee who mixes the drink has to mix the glass, walk into a room in the corner that’s about 4’ x 4’, pour the alcohol in there, and then come back out. So what happens is that they’re opening the door with their elbow, going into a small space that we use for our office work, they have to shut the door, turn on the light after it’s closed so they don’t disrupt the table nearby, pour the alcohol, turn the light back off, open the door only enough so the nearby guests aren’t looking in, come back out, mix the drink, and take the drink to the customer.

Beer and wine is under the same statute. I have a refrigerator on the other side of the bar, and customers can’t see into it, but I’m not allowed to use it to serve beer, because the bar is considered a public area. So the beer is in a fridge in my kitchen — the employee will walk five feet to grab a beer out of the kitchen, bring it back, untap the beer and give it to the customer. Five feet. The law makes it more of a visibility issue by requiring my employees to walk back and forth with beers rather than pulling it out of a fridge discreetly.

LI: Would you say it’s a fair assessment that the theatrics of going in and out of an office, or the kitchen, might attract more attention to the drink than a quick exchange over the bar?

Ballard: I think so. If you’re sitting at the table near our office, where we pour the liquor, and you see one of my employees going in and out, in and out, in and out all while holding drinks… you may not think immediately that it’s alcohol, but it’s very distracting and people are going to be curious and ask their server what is going on.

Personally, I don’t think that the theatrics on either side (pouring alcohol in public view, or making it happen in private) have any impact whatsoever on whether people drink. I don’t buy into the legislature’s argument that people are being influenced.

It just creates a hassle for my servers, so I have to employ more labor, and then I have to explain to people, especially those from outside of Utah, what we’re doing because they are bothered by the fact that they can’t see their drink made — which is bad for tourism.

The goal for any business is to grow, and the more we grow and the more alcohol we potentially sell, the more unfeasible it will be to do it all in our tiny room. So I’ll be forced, as a result of the Zion Wall policy, to pay around $10,000 to modify the bar area so we build a large wall to accommodate the increased demand. That’s a tax, frankly, that I shouldn’t have to pay.

LI: So there are compliance costs for businesses such as yours with this policy. Do you think that these costs do anything to substantiate the perceived benefits of the Zion Wall policy? 

Ballard: I don’t think there is a single benefit to this policy. Honestly, not a single one. All I see are costs. I know that sounds like maybe I’m being really dogmatic in my point of view, but I really can’t see a benefit.

LI: That, of course, was Representative Wilcox’s contention in sponsoring the bill to eliminate the Zion Wall — that the policy hasn’t proven to do anything. As you know, the bill passed the House, and then Senator Valentine was instrumental in shutting it down. He said the following in an interview about it: “I’m concerned about the culture of alcohol. I’m concerned about changing the atmosphere of our restaurants to bars. Our restaurants are family friendly. We don’t want the atmosphere which encourages the consumption of alcohol.” Your response?

Ballard: I have two thoughts on that. First: I’ve met with Senator Valentine one on one. I asked him what his personal view on this was — if he actually believed that removing the Zion Wall would cause increased underage drinking and/or drunk driving. He told me: “honestly, I don’t believe that would happen” and went on to express that unfortunately, he was being pressured from many groups, namely, the LDS Church, MADD, and the PTA. And that they are clamoring for even more enforcement and even stronger controls that what’s currently in place. So from a personal level, I know that Senator Valentine doesn’t believe what he said in that quote.

Second, if you believe in the free market, you understand that as a business, I want to do everything I can to maximize my profits. If I saw a situation where families and individuals stopped coming to my restaurant because they felt uncomfortable with the way that we were serving, advertising, pouring alcohol, or putting it on menus, I’m obviously going to keep that in mind and perhaps adjust. So I have a hard time with this notion that all of a sudden every restaurant will become a bar.

When you go to a restaurant in New York City, LA, or Miami, you know when it’s a restaurant. You know when you’re in a bar, or when you’re in a restaurant. So this idea that somehow we’re going to scare people into thinking that our restaurants will become bars is a little bit ludicrous, when most of the population knows when they’re in which, and most businesses aren’t going to go past what the market is demanding anyway.

LI: You said a moment ago that you didn’t believe the legislature actually believed the stated reasons for the Zion Wall, namely, that it exists to help prevent underage drinking. In that case, what do you believe is the reason for the policy?

Ballard: I should clarify that, because when I went to testify, I was shocked at some of the ignorance and stances of a few of the legislators who were asking questions. It was fairly apparent that some of them actually did believe that public sight of alcohol leads to underage drinking. As a whole, I wouldn’t say that the legislature buys into that, but several legislators apparently do.

Honestly, I think it’s just the political pressure from outside groups. When you have these groups oppose something, they leverage their phone trees so that the minute they disagree with a bill, they implement those systems. They’re better organized. Most restauranteurs like me either don’t care, because they were grandfathered in, or if we do care we’re working 12-14 hour days and we don’t have time to rally and get politically active. But on the other side you have stay-at-home moms or people with disposable time to make a phone call and get angry about it.

If you actually polled the general population, I don’t think most Utahns would support this law, whether they drink alcohol or not.

LI: Do you think that people, especially children, are at all tempted by the mere sight of alcohol?

Ballard: I think children are impressionable, and adults are as well. But I think that the primary responsibility for how you want to raise your children lies with the two parents, in most cases, who are raising the child. It doesn’t lie with outside groups and influences.

Every appearance may or may not have an affect. I just know that with my restaurant, children are not normally coming here. Most places where alcohol is being served with a nice meal, that’s not really a family friendly place. I don’t go to bed at night wondering whether I’m influencing a child, even with the degree of alcohol that I do sell.

I would rebut the argument by asking why Budweiser can have signs all over their vans when they are delivering? Children are in cars more than restaurants. What about grocery stores and convenience stores? Children have much more access going to these local stores when buying candy, or in the shopping cart with their mother, than a restaurant like mine. If you really believe the argument that public sight leads to alcohol consumption, then there are much more effective ways at dealing with the issue.

I don’t have signs up advertising the alcohol — it’s just a bottle going out to a table that you’re not even sitting at. I believe that everything can make an impression, but that’s life.

LI: The House strongly supported Rep. Wilcox’s bill to get rid of the Zion Wall, and the Senate strongly opposed it. Any thoughts on why the Senate refused to support the bill?

Ballard: You’d probably have better knowledge on that, because I don’t know all the dynamics. What I do know, from my conversations with Representative Wilcox, is that you can’t ignore the influence of the LDS Church. They generally, from my understanding, don’t come out on every bill that they support or oppose and make a public statement, because they don’t want to appear to be political. But they do have lobbyists that are meeting with influential members in the legislature and implying, or even directly saying in an office behind closed doors, that the church does not support a certain bill. So if that’s happening with Senator Valentine, now he’s made up his mind, and there are probably a few Senators who will come to Valentine and say “what should we do?” It’s a game of alliances, a little bit.

That’s the only way I can guess without knowing more about who is in the Senate and who’s in the House, who supports what, etc. But after being present to testify, I would have to say that it wouldn’t shock me if most of the Senate also didn’t know what was going on either. With our public hearing in the House we were able to convince people better. I was even explaining a lot to Representative Wilcox about how the law worked. Maybe if the bill had gotten to a Senate committee, it would have more opportunity to educate about how the law is actually working.

LI: You’re a member of the LDS Church. Do you have any thoughts on how the church to which you belong is advocating policies that negatively impact your business for reasons that aren’t very valid?

Ballard: I’m going to take the church at its public stance, that politics and religion shouldn’t mix. I know the church doesn’t always do that, but I think that’s the overarching principle. And when the church does something that maybe isn’t within that principle, I view that as maybe the “corporation” of the church. But from a spiritual point of view, I believe that I have my right to an opinion and to express what I think is best for society. And I respect the church’s opinion on that as well. I don’t really have much more of a stance beyond that.

Look, most of the general population doesn’t care about the Zion Wall. If you don’t drink it’s not affecting you, and even if you drink, it’s not affecting you much at all. I know, as a restaurant owner, I’m in the minority. But I do think it’s frustrating when some members of the church, on both sides, don’t look at things beyond what the church says, if the church does say something. I’m sure that’s more frustrating for people who aren’t members of the church, when they feel like the church can make a statement (or heavily imply a position on something), and then all members immediately translate that into a certain policy position. I’m sure that’s frustrating for a lot of people, and it would have been frustrating for me had the church taken a public stance on the Zion Wall because I know that it would really influence people to immediately discount anything I say — and for reasons that may not be accurate or fair. And I might get labeled, unfairly, as going against the church in that situation. I haven’t had to worry about that, since the church hasn’t said anything publicly about the bill I was hoping would pass, but they were working behind the scenes on it.

LI: What are your thoughts on prohibition in general? Should the government be involved at all, regulation alcohol and owning its distribution channels, or should it be left to the market?

Ballard: Representative Wilcox made a good point. He said to me that most Utahns, especially Latter-day Saints, don’t support the consumption of alcohol. But when the state of Utah owns the alcohol, and operates the alcohol stores and is trying to turn a profit on those stores… well, the state of Utah is us, being the taxpayers, which means that we are the shareholders in that business arm of the state of Utah.

I would think that if you had a strong opposition to the selling and/or the consumption of alcohol, you wouldn’t want to be a stakeholder in that, and as a taxpayer, currently that’s where we are. I think that if most non-drinking, even anti-alcohol citizens knew that, they would wonder why the state was running it.

I do think there is some value in limiting alcohol to minors, and I strongly support requiring ID when people purchase alcohol. I strongly support serious ramifications if you drink and drive, or if you do something bad under the influence of alcohol. I have no problem with that.

One thing that negatively affects us is that we’re buying, as a business, at the same price as a consumer. When I go into a state-owned liquor store to buy the alcohol for my business, I pay the same price as if you were to do the same. So it makes it somewhat challenging when I’m trying to sell something at a markup that you can get yourself. With most business purchases you get wholesale pricing because you purchase in large quantities and commit your business to certain suppliers, but I don’t get that benefit of the market from the state.

Government shouldn’t be in the business of being in business in my opinion. That’s not the purpose of government, to run businesses and try to give me a return on my tax investment. I don’t view government as having that role. When they claim that they have turned a profit, I don’t really like that. And when they’re not turning a profit, I don’t like that even more. So I think that when most Utahns realize that they’re subsidizing the sale of alcohol through their tax dollars, they would oppose it. If I had a really strong stance against alcohol, I wouldn’t want my tax dollars going there.

LI: As a business owner, do you feel that your rights and interests are being represented in the legislature?

Ballard: That’s a tough one. I don’t know enough of the legislators, and I really don’t follow local politics as much as I probably should. I just know that from my experience, I was surprised that prior to a hearing on this bill, nobody really knew what they were talking about — including Representative Wilcox, who I really respect for pushing the bill forward. I don’t know how feasible it is for legislators to know everything I want them to know.

LI: Finally, if you had the attention of the Utah legislature for two minutes, what would you say to them?

Ballard: First off, you’ve created an uneven playing field. Most restaurants aren’t actually complying with the law because of the grandfather clause. Second, if we’re really concerned about underage drinking (and it appears that it’s the primary reason we have the Zion Wall), then why is the burden of proof on me to prove that it’s not affecting children, when you’ve never supplied any sort of proof that it is affecting them?

At least, from a restaurant pouring a drink point of view. I’m not talking about advertising, or studies that show that children are impressionable — I’m simply asking where it’s been shown that a restaurant pouring a drink is actually causing (and not correlating) to children going out and drinking as minors.

If you are worried about impressionable children drinking, then why not attack the actual issue? And that is underage purchasing of alcohol and adults giving alcohol to minors. Why not attack those things? Why not make it a bigger deal if I serve a minor alcohol? I’d rather have a higher fine, or I rather there be higher enforcement mechanisms because of higher fines, so you can go out and make sure that people are not serving to minors.

I don’t like laws that try to go in a very roundabout way to fix something that probably isn’t going to get fixed at all.

Lastly, with that, in defense of pouring a drink in public, most teenagers aren’t going to go to a restaurant to consume alcohol, and buy a $40 bottle of wine. Ever. They’re going to try and get a 24-pack of beer and go up the canyon or in their parents’ home. I think it’s a little farfetched because I don’t think most kids 16-21 years of age think of going to a fine dining restaurant to get a buzz. There are easier ways for them to attempt it.