SNOW HILL — Ten area businesses faced hearings for alcohol sales to minors at Wednesday’s Board of License Commissioners (BLC) meeting.
A total of $3,500 in fines was levied and one Snow Hill store was forced to turn in its alcohol license. One common theme stood out in all of the cases where underage Sheriff’s Office cadets attempted to buy alcohol — a failure by clerks to simply deny vertical Maryland licenses, which board members assert would prevent a huge majority of sales to minors.
The business hardest hit by the board’s crackdown was the Super Soda Center in Snow Hill. Receiving two sale to minor violations in about a year, the last incident caused the BLC to eliminate the store’s right to sell beer and wine.
“Your license is revoked,” BLC Chair William Esham told owner Yuszant Patel.
Originally, attorney Pete Cosby, who represented the Soda Center, tried to convince the board that the store should be given a third chance despite its two violations.
“Even in baseball you get three strikes,” said Cosby. “I know a second violation is in the red zone.”
While other businesses have accrued as many violations in as short a timeframe, the Soda Center made weak efforts to improve training and ID checking policies after their initial issue, according to the board. In addition, Worcester County Sheriff’s Deputy First Class Jennifer Hall characterized the Soda Center as “a known hotspot” in terms of alcohol sales to minors. She explained that it had a reputation as a store underage youth could visit if they wished to avoid being carded.
Perhaps the final straw was the fact that Patel lied under oath as to how many of his employees worked the register or made alcohol sales.
Initially saying that only two people, including himself, were allowed behind the register, when pressured by conflicting reports from the Sheriff’s Office, Patel admitted that at least four people have register privileges.
“Now you’re saying sometimes others?” asked Esham.
The board threw the proverbial book at Patel, skipping a possible suspension of his license and completely revoking it.
Other businesses fared better than the Soda Center, though repeat offenders still caught hefty fines.
Pizza Tugos in West Ocean City suffered back-to-back violations on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 of this year. Owner Scott Heise, despite not making either of the sales and being off premise for the second incident, took full responsibility.
“I’m embarrassed to be down here,” he told the BLC.
Since the violations, however, Heise stressed that he has revamped his ID system with a number of new checks and balances. Now, everyone who attempts to buy alcohol, no matter their age, is carded. He also brought in the Ocean City Police Department for further ID training.
“We think it is part of our responsibility to not serve underage people,” said Heise.
In light of the steps taken by Heise and the fact that he’s held an alcohol license in some form for 28 years with only one prior violation several decades ago, the board did not suspend or revoke his license, though he was hit with a $2,000 fine and a letter of reprimand.
No other businesses were hit that hard in the wallet, though the 19th Hole Bar and Grille and Marlin Market in West Ocean City received a $1,000 fine because the most recent violation was the second for license holders Roberta Hennessy and William Cook since they took over last June.
Buck’s Place, also in West Ocean City, received a $500 fine after receiving two violations in a year. Its fine was light in part because of the strict policies that have since been adopted by the store, including a commitment not to sell to anyone with a vertical driver’s license as well as a new zero tolerance policy for employees who make minor sales which now result in immediate termination.
Six other businesses in the area were able to escape the BLC’s judgment with only letters of reprimand, usually because they were in trouble for first-time violations. However, those letters remain on file and are re-examined if a business picks up a second sale to minor charge.
The board stressed in almost every case that most sales could be avoided if businesses took a page from Buck’s book and simply instructed clerks not to sell to anyone with a vertical driver’s license.
In Maryland, a vertical license means that the owner is less than 21-years old and therefore unable to purchase alcohol. However, even after turning 21 a resident may keep that vertical license for 60 more days before it has to be renewed.
Still, the small amount of business a store might lose by not selling to the rare over 21-year-old vertical license holder would be more than offset by the sales to minor fines, according to the board.
“Just tell them no vertical licenses,” said Esham.