State bill could mean more Martin County restaurants can sell liquor

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - More Martin County restaurants could soon be cashing in on happy hours with mixed drinks and liquor, after a House bill passed Wednesday that loosens local liquor license requirements.

House Bill 657 would lower the number of seats and the square footage required for restaurants to receive liquor licenses in the county's Community Redevelopment Agency districts. The new standards would let establishments in Jensen Beach, Rio, Hobe Sound, Indiantown, Golden Gate, Old Palm City and Port Salerno match what's required of restaurants in the city of Stuart.

The proposal by Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Port St. Lucie, would offer liquor licenses in the county's seven CRAs if the restaurants seat 150 or more patrons in at least a 1,500-square-foot space. Establishments in the CRAs now have to hold at least 200 customers with at least 4,000 square feet of floor space, which owners said has been tough to meet and maintain because of space and clientele limitations.

With the requirement changes, restaurant industry workers think the county could see additional and more diverse types of eateries sprout up.

Since the House deals with the Legislature's local bills, the proposal is now just a Gov. Rick Scott signature away from becoming law.

"It levels the playing field for our small restaurants in CRAs," Harrell said. "This will allow the small entrepreneur in those communities to be competitive with the big chains. In those compact areas with small lots, it's impossible to have a large enough restaurant to meet those numbers that are required now."

The rules for special alcoholic beverage licenses in CRAs are spelled out in state statutes, so the Legislature is the only body that can tweak them.

When Richard Ruvo came on the staff as a consultant, the Madi McGee's worker glanced across the sprawling 5,000-square-foot, 208-seat restaurant and thought: If we could only cut this place in half, the layout could be perfect.

"In this market, you can't fill up 200 seats every night," Ruvo said. "A smaller restaurant would make it that much easier to do."

But chopping it down a little smaller could put the Jensen Beach Boulevard restaurant's liquor license in jeopardy.

If the standards change, Madi McGee's could save $30,000 to $40,000 in a possible restaurant revamp plan, Ruvo said. Owners could carve out a portion of the space for another restaurant tenant to come in, since there's an extra kitchen inside. They could also count on savings on their lease, utilities and staffing, Ruvo said.

That could be a successful formula for a wider restaurant mix to pop up in Martin's dining scene, Ruvo said.

Florida currently charges $1,820 a year for the license, and Martin charges $390 annually, according to a bill analysis.

The floor-size and seat-total issue has been a big one for some time in Martin County, said John Hennessee, CRA chairman, but it has never gained the traction that it has this year.

"The benefit to these restaurants will be significant because so many diners want to have more than just a glass of beer or wine with their meal," Hennessee said.

Eric Grutka, owner of Ian's Tropical Grill in Rio, said it's tough to swallow when calls come in for dinner reservations, then diners find out they can't order a cocktail and they'll head elsewhere.

The trendy spot on Northeast Dixie Highway has 100 seats across 1,500 square feet, so Ian's only serves beer and wine. The restaurant would be willing to add 50 seats to meet the new standard by enclosing some of the patio seating, Grutka said.

With liquor at the bar, patrons would be more likely to stick around and grab a few more drinks, Grutka said. That could mean the difference between staying open until 11 p.m. for the later crowd, vs. closing 8 or 9 p.m. after dinner, he said.

It's much easier for bigger chain restaurants to meet the larger standards, since they can foot the added expenses, he said. Harrell's bill would let small eateries compete for that long-unreachable business, he said.

"Some things (Martin County does) business-wise, it's catering to big chain restaurants," Grutka said. "It's kind of putting mom and pops places at a disadvantage, which is exactly the opposite of the values of Martin County."

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