***UPDATED at 1:30 p.m.***
Hoboken’s legendary bar industry has always been heavily scrutinized. However, the City seems intent on making it clear that Hoboken bars will need to answer to higher standards moving forward, with over a dozen bars facing temporary closure following an abrupt hearing of the Alcohol Board of Control Thursday evening.
Only two weeks into his administration, Mayor Ravi S. Bhalla announced the formation of a Task Force on Public Safety to address violence and quality of life issues resulting from intoxicated bar patrons.
A week later, an ordinance was slated to go before the Hoboken City Council that called for further restrictions on bar crowds, advertising and enhanced crowd control training for staffers. The ordinance was eventually removed from the City Council agenda for lack of support—but given the volatile nature of the Hoboken bar/restaurant business in the face of demographic shifts and ongoing infrastructure issues that have negatively impacted the retail scene in general, a number of bar owners showed up to voice their concerns.
Some of those bar owners will find themselves back in City Hall Thursday night, trying to avoid penalties that could include license suspensions and temporary closures—some as long as 70 days per violation, and some with multiple violations that could cost bars dearly.
According to the City, there were 277 liquor license violations, a.k.a. “tavern sheets,” in 2017. Of 133 liquor license holders, more than half received zero tavern sheets in 2017 and more than ¾ received two or fewer tavern sheets. Of the 277 violations, half were issued to just 11 Hoboken establishments (8% of the city’s bars).
“We have more than 130 liquor license holders in Hoboken—almost all of them are responsible business owners who are an important part of our community—however a few bad apples are creating a dangerous situation that negatively impacts our entire community,” said Mayor Bhalla.
Thursday’s hearing will be held to address a wide range of violations—some rather extreme.
According to Hoboken Spokesperson Juan Melli, “There has been an uptick in disturbing events including violent assaults. As can be seen in the reports, incidents include a bar patron that was recently left with permanent brain damage after being assaulted. Multiple officers have been assaulted or spat upon by intoxicated patrons. A patron had a plate smashed over her head in a violent attack, and, it is alleged, that despite her cries for help and pleas to hold her attacker, the bar staff escorted the attacker out the door and aided in their escape. There have been patrons rushed to the hospital after they were found semi-conscious in bars.”
The grey area comes when incidents take place outside bars. One owner who has to attend Thursday’s hearing says, “Unfortunately the report isn’t accurate, but I have videotape to prove it,” adding, “The people who were fighting on the street were never in our bar, and when the incident started they weren’t on my line. The city is trying to slap me with a closure, but I’m confident we did the right thing. In fact, we had more security outside than inside when that fight happened.”
A COST OF DOING BUSINESS
A number of the violations occurred during SantaCon, an event that took place last December 16, which saw a total of 17 arrests. Nearly two months later, bar owners were reportedly served with hand-delivered summonses on Valentine’s Day, informing them that they are all to appear at Thursday’s hearing.
“It’s part of the business—it’s going to happen,” said one of the bar owners we spoke with (all of whom asked to speak anonymously). “Sometimes I have to pay the price, and I’ve always paid it. But usually it’s a fair process,” he said. “To give someone five days notice to defend their livelihood doesn’t seem right.”
hMAG asked the City about the timing of the hearing—the long gap between the violations and the delivery of the summons, and the short time to prepare for the hearing. The City declined to comment, but bar owners feel it was timed to send a message for LepreCon—the now annual event that has come to replace the Hoboken St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
***UPDATE—this appears to be the answer to our question***
Addressed the Inter-Agency group of Law Enforcement Officers who are preparing for #Leprecon on Mar. 3rd in #Hoboken. Violations of the law by bar owners & patrons will not be tolerated under my administration and I thank all law enforcement officers who will keep our city safe. pic.twitter.com/ArGSgcQ00K
— Ravinder S. Bhalla (@RaviBhalla) February 22, 2018
“Every January, Hoboken St. Patrick’s Day is seen as a problem,” said another bar owner, “and every year we say sit and talk with us and we’ll work something out.”
Hoboken’s hospitality industry, which has been seen by many as a catalyst that helped spark the City’s real estate renaissance, has been forced to deal with a lot of changes over the past few years.
“We don’t have support from this town, and that’s clear,” said one bar owner. “We should be working together, not against each other—it’s a hostile work environment, and the bar business isn’t easy in this economy. Washington Street is literally crumbling, retail is down, median age is rising because younger people can no longer afford to live here. We could really use someone saying, ‘Come to Hoboken,’ and inviting people to enjoy what this town has to offer. Instead we have leadership saying, ‘Don’t come to Hoboken, the bars are rowdy.’ When you’re facing that and struggling all year long, but you have a chance to fill your bar on one event, some bars become desperate.”
Another bar owner echoed the sentiment about having to bite the bullet on large-scale events, such as SantaCon and LepreCon. Well prior to SantaCon, a significant promotional campaign took place on social media and on PubCrawls.com—the event’s promoter—listing participating venues. (EDITOR’S NOTE: It was also posted here on hMAG.com, more as a warning to residents.) His establishment wasn’t on that list, but sits adjacent to several that were. “I can’t afford to have a bad Saturday. Even if I didn’t want to participate, how do I not participate? We’re kind of stuck into being open,” he said. “I’m personally not a fan of these SantaCons and LepreCons, and I’d love to be able to take a moral stand, but I can’t afford it—not when business is so hit or miss.”
“Most of us owners aren’t here to make a quick buck and get out of Hoboken,” says the owner of a bar on First Street. “We all care and we want to be able to make it work. We’re not stupid people, we don’t want these problems. But let’s face it—no one has ever really been a fan of the industry that’s built this town.”
The City’s priority right now is cracking down on the ‘Cons. “Bringing the large-scale drinking events under control was one of the four policy priorities I outlined during my inauguration address,” said Mayor Bhalla. “I will not allow the current situation to continue or to deteriorate further, and until bar owners are able to take control of the situation, as they are legally required to do, we will use all tools at our disposal to protect the people of Hoboken.”
When it comes to the hospitality scene, there are certainly lots of pros that go along with the ‘Cons. Hoboken has long been touted as a THE place for a great night out in our region, and continues to evolve to serve a changing demographic.
As Hoboken’s identity crisis continues to play out, people’s livelihoods will hang in the balance. Not just bar owners, but bartenders, barbacks, waitstaff, kitchen staff, door staff will all be impacted by this unprecedented mass hearing of the Alcohol Board of Control.
Just how much of an impact will be determined Thursday night.