Standards & Pours: Why Did the D.C. Government Try to Enforce Imaginary Alcohol Portion Laws?
Around 1:30 p.m. a few Saturdays ago, two inspectors from the D.C. Office of Weights and Measures entered The Big Board on H Street NE pulling a dolly with a crate full of beakers.
The inspectors told chef Andrew Gregory, the manager on site, that they were there to make sure the bar was pouring enough beer, wine, and hard liquor in each drink to meet the District’s minimum portion requirements. The office, which is overseen by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, normally sticks to making sure you get a gallon of gas at the pump when you pay for one and that pharmacy or grocery store scales are calibrated correctly. This time, though, they were checking on booze.
Gregory was perplexed, but he obliged the inspectors, pouring them glasses of Yuengling, Malbec, and rail vodka—the cheapest of each kind of drink available, as they requested. The inspectors then transferred the alcohol into beakers with mouths the size of Coke bottles. Worried about mismeasurements, Gregory asked if they had a funnel. They didn’t, Gregory says, and they spilled liquid down the sides of their beakers.
“After I poured everything for them, they said, ‘Everything is fine,’” Gregory recounts. “I was like, ‘Well, what is it supposed to be?’”
The inspectors told Gregory that to be legal, a shot had to contain at least one and a half ounces of liquor, a glass of wine five ounces, and a beer 12 ounces. Underpouring, they said, could result in a $2,000 fine. They even handed Gregory a five-page pamphlet with those amounts that stated that D.C. requires all restaurants and bars selling alcohol to label the sizes of their drinks in ounces on their menus. “The District of Columbia has zero tolerance for incorrect pours,” the document said.
Over the course of that afternoon of Feb. 9 and into the early evening, the inspectors visited about 10 bars and restaurants on the H Street NE corridor, including Boundary Road, Granville Moore’s, The Pug, The Queen Vic, and Smith Commons, conducting the same experiments and handing out the same information.
None of it was true.
The Office of Weights and Measures was hassling bars and restaurants over laws that don’t exist. D.C. law says nothing about how much alcohol bars must serve, only that they have to provide what they advertise. So if a restaurant’s menu says it’ll pour five ounces of wine, it’s required to serve five ounces. But bars and restaurants don’t have to label the ounces in a drink on their menus, and neither the D.C. code nor any DCRA regulations define how many ounces are in a “glass.”
On top of that, the pamphlet said businesses must register all “commercially-used weighing and measuring devices” and that they could face $2,000 fines for using devices before they’re inspected or registered. The pamphlet mentions pharmaceutical scales used in dialysis clinics as well as gas pumps and produce scales. Later in the document, in describing “steps for inspection,” the document also mentions one measuring device used in bars: a jigger.
D.C. government does not and never has inspected or registered cocktail jiggers.
“The pamphlet was not fully vetted to make sure it was completely accurate and completely clear,” says DCRA spokesman Helder Gil.
It’s still unclear how the four-person staff of the Office of Weights and Measures acted on and gave out false information. A large photo of DCRA Director Nicholas Majett appears on the front of the info packet given to bars and restaurants, along with a letter from him. But a written statement from DCRA about Majett’s involvement in the inspections, sent after Y&H inquired about the enforcement, says: “Director Majett relied on his staff when they proposed the initiative. Once he became aware that the initiative was causing confusion among bar/restaurant owners, he suspended the initiative until it is thoroughly reviewed so as to effectively communicate the correct legal requirements to bar/restaurant owners.”
Majett declined to be interviewed for this story.
Gil says the Office of Weights and Measures decided to conduct the “educational” inspections in response to an increase in consumer complaints about alcohol portions. In the past couple months, the office received about a dozen missives regarding different bars throughout the city. Normally, it sees a low single-digit number of complaints in a year. The agency wouldn’t release the complaints to Y&H, and hasn’t yet responded to a Freedom of Information Act request for them.
This isn’t the office’s first time checking on drink sizes, though it’s been a while. In June 2005, the office investigated Elephant & Castle at 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW after a diner complained about not getting British pints of beer, with 20 ounces, as advertised. Inspectors found the problem was more widespread: Neither the 20-ounce glasses nor the 16-ounce glasses were actually the sizes marked. They gave the restaurant the option to get bigger glasses or change its menu; it opted for the latter.
But Gil says no one had complained about the bars and restaurants inspected on Feb. 9. The office targeted H Street NE because there are a lot of bars in the neighborhood; inspectors planned to move on to other parts of the city on other trips. Most of the bars they visited don’t even list drink sizes on their menus.
DCRA didn’t issue any fines, but its actions left bar and restaurant staff confused and frustrated rather than educated.
“I understand the point of what they were trying to do, but it’s disappointing how they screwed it up,” says Granville Moore’s beverage director Matt LeBarron. “They went out and caused a mini-public-relations shit storm without doing their homework first.”
Queen Vic owner Ryan Gordon says he was tipped off by the owners of Boundary Road that the inspectors were making their way down H Street NE. “They were not as professional as I thought they would be. They didn’t have a funnel to be able to pour the liquor into their measuring devices,” he says. “To me, it was just weird. They’re wasting all this money to do something that doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Several bar owners and managers complained that the inspectors came in at inopportune times. The Pug manager Kate Donnelly says the bar was busy and she was the only staff person working at the time. “It was an inconvenience, for sure,” Donnelly says. “You don’t want uniformed people coming into the bar with beakers taking up a whole table ... If they want to check, they can check. But they’re obviously not business people. They don’t realize what they’re doing.”
The inspectors allotted $300 for drinks, paid in cash, asked for receipts, but didn’t tip. They didn’t drink, per official protocol.
Almost immediately, DCRA officials knew the agents had been giving out false information. Two days after the inspections, Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington president Kathy Hollinger says, one of her members contacted her about it. She’d never heard anything about D.C. inspecting alcohol portions before.
RAMW lobbyist Andrew Kline contacted Mayor Vince Gray’s office and DCRA and asked them to take another look at the regulations. “It came out of left field,” Kline says. “We didn’t really get into the basis of it because even if there was a basis for it, it did not seem to be a good use of government resources.”
DCRA gave RAMW no information about where the bogus rules came from, but it quickly suspended its attempts to enforce the nonexistent laws. But two weeks after the inspections, DCRA still hadn’t contacted the bars and restaurants officials visited to correct the information agents had left. “I wasn’t aware there was such confusion left behind,” Gil says, “but that is something that I will pass along to the inspections staff.”
While DCRA has dropped its crusade to enforce imaginary laws for now, Gil says the agency is only putting any “educational effort” about alcohol portions on hold. One thing is for sure: The agency will be closely vetting the pamphlets next time.
Maybe not surprisingly, bar owners aren’t sure measuring drinks is the best use of District government resources.
Granville Moore’s LeBarron says he wouldn’t be opposed to requiring bars to list the amounts they serve—if such laws actually existed. “It gives you an idea in your mind of what you’re paying for,” he says. Granville Moore’s may soon add drink measurements on its menu. “We know what we’re pouring, and we’re comfortable with that.”
But at the stock market-themed Big Board, Gregory thinks the free market can take care of drink sizes. “If people aren’t happy with whatever they’re getting poured somewhere then I guess they should just go somewhere else,” he says. “I don’t think it should be regulated by the government. There’s way too much stuff that already is.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery