When we opened our restaurant at 231 Mitchell St. in December, the historic hotel row had established itself as a seedy downtown block with inconsistent street lighting, sketchy drug dealers, prostitutes and petty thieves.
Lunacy Black Market strove to anchor itself as a safe place for diners to enjoy good food and a glass of wine, and maybe run into someone familiar. During the dark winter months, we committed to keeping the kitchen humming until 10 p.m. to maintain a human presence on the block.
Today, some seven months into our business, much of the seediness has disappeared, and that happened with minimal police presence.
There's just one nagging problem.
As most restaurant owners will tell you, their establishments' very survival hinges on the ability to sell wine, beer and/or liquor along with food. And in spite of what some people might think, a liquor license can have a positive impact on the safety of the neighborhood — for the very reasons mentioned above.
So why does the liquor license process in Atlanta need to be so damned expensive, time-consuming and discouraging?
We're six months into our application for a liquor license. Unfortunately, a wait of that length is not unusual.
Like any business, we paid the city and state licensing fees, requisite inspections fees, and legal advertising fees amounting to more than $10,000. And we did it without investor backing — as have many other small restaurants. In mid-May, we were finally able to obtain a temporary liquor license. But the headache and hassle in trying to obtain a permanent one persist.
In this economy, we should applaud local residents and taxpayers who take the initiative to contribute significant revenue to the state and city's tax coffers. It doesn't make sense that the resulting process should be so confusing. This is a shame given that small businesses are trying to move within city limits, where there's the exciting potential to build safer, more vibrant Atlanta communities.
In about four months, regardless of whether we received a permanent liquor license by then, we will have to apply to renew our liquor license (or maybe just apply for a new one altogether). At that time, we — and everyone wishing to obtain or renew their liquor license — will have to pay a higher fee. Never mind that there's no indication that the increased cost will make the process any easier.
We imagine that speaking up against this broken system scares a lot of small restaurant and bar owners, who are worried about the threat of being audited and potentially squashed by excessive bureaucratic demands. In the end, the licensing process only favors one kind of restaurateur: big businesses with bottomless bank accounts.