EAGLE COUNTY — State liquor enforcement agents have been working in the Vail Valley since May, conducting “compliance checks” to see if bars, restaurants or liquor stores are selling to underage buyers.
Here’s how it works: Agents working for the Colorado Department of Revenue send an underage informant into an establishment. If that person is able to buy alcohol, then citations are issued to both the business and the person who conducted the transaction.
Town and county officials issue liquor licenses but don’t know state agents have been around until they receive a report.
The Eagle County Clerk and Recorder’s Office handles liquor license applications and violations. But that office, and its municipal counterparts, don’t have anything to do with either investigation, enforcement or penalties during state-led operations.
“We handle it if it’s us that issues the citation,” said Tammy Nagel, who handles liquor license issues in Vail. “At the state level, it’s between the business and state.”
Enforcement people were in Vail in February, visiting nine businesses on Feb. 15 alone. Of those, five businesses received citations.
Agents came to Vail again July 19 and visited 10 businesses. This time through, no citations were issued.
“I’m glad we got the email that we passed,” Nagel said.
The story was different in the rest of the valley. In a roughly two-month period, an underage informant tried to buy liquor at roughly 100 businesses. Of those, 23 received citations.
In an email, Daria Serna, the communications director for the Colorado Department of Revenue, wrote that state officials don’t keep the kind of statistics that would indicate whether that failure rate was higher or lower than other areas in the state. Serna also wrote that although there’s no scientific evidence to back up the claim, “we do find that when liquor checks happen in an area, compliance does increase.”
Buzz Busby, general manager of the Coyote Cafe in Beaver Creek, said he’s seen that once a business gets a citation, that establishment usually passes its subsequent checks.
There’s a good reason for that — liquor violations are expensive. State citations will usually shut down a business for at least a handful of days, and the fines can be stiff, too. Employees are often fired if they serve an underage informant, and then face penalties from the misdemeanor citations they receive.
While businesses that fail their checks know immediately, those that pass usually aren’t aware they’ve been tested until the state issues a report.
“After (the informant) left, our bartender realized it had probably happened,” Busby said.
Busby has worked at the Coyote in some capacity for about 15 years. In that time, the restaurant has never been cited for a liquor violation. That’s no accident, he said.
“It’s more than being careful,” he said. “It’s about being accurate, it’s about training.”
And whether or not a business passes a compliance check sometimes has to do with its usual clientele, Busby said. Higher-end restaurants that generally cater to older customers might not have the right safeguards in place, or may be easier to catch because they don’t often serve younger guests, he said.
On the other hand, places that cater to younger customers might have an even harder time.
“I know when I was 25 everybody looked 21,” he said. “Of course, now I think everybody looks 17.”
Ultimately, though, it’s incumbent on people who serve or sell liquor to check IDs, all the time.
“It’s just part of being in this business,” Busby said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2939 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.