World Famous Woody’s Tavern, Moab’s long-running neighborhood bar, could lose its liquor license for a code violation this summer: The business stayed closed for over ten days in July without notifying the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services (DABS).
At the end of the month, Shari Beck, owner of Woody’s Tavern since 1991, will attend a public hearing at a DABS commission meeting to fight for her bar establishment license. She said the 12-day closure—from July 3-14—was absolutely necessary, as it took all 12 days to fix up and reopen Woody’s Tavern after a series of incidents this summer.
If Woody’s does lose its license, it will have to join a queue of retailers that have been waiting for licenses for months, as Utah’s strict liquor laws mean bar licenses are constantly in low supply. But if that happens, Woody’s is more likely to close than wait it out, Beck said.
The bar’s string of troubles started at the beginning of the summer, Beck said, when a motorcyclist backed up to the open door of the bar and revved the engine, filling the bar with exhaust fumes and the smell of burnt rubber. Then, someone snapped a picture of a Woody’s employee allegedly drinking while working—Beck said the employee was cleaning up glasses—which DABS got a hold of, serving Woody’s with a notice to close for a few days as punishment for the violation. In the last week of June, the new air conditioner Beck had bought for the season died, and she was told it would take a week for the system to be fixed. When she tried to fire up the backup swamp coolers, she discovered they were also broken.
The summer was hot: 100º heat relentlessly filled the bar. Beck knew she wanted to close for the Fourth of July holiday anyway, since patrons typically get unruly, but with the necessitated closure, the repairs, the heat, and the feeling that something else was likely to go wrong, she decided to close for longer: She put a sign on the door that said “On Vacation, July 3-14,” and sent a photo of the sign on the door to DABS as proof of closing.
She knew DABS had a rule about closures—anything more than two weeks, she thought, had to be cleared by them. She had been running the bar for thirty years, and trusted her knowledge: Why wouldn’t the rule be for two weeks? But written on the bottom of the second-to-last page of the 11-page Utah DABS Bar Establishment Licenses Licensee Handbook: A rule that states any retailer with a bar establishment license must “notify your compliance officer in writing if you are going to be closed for more than 10 days. Emergency closures may be granted by telephone. NOT DOING SO is an automatic forfeiture of the retail license. Failure to RE-OPEN by the approval date also results in an automatic failure.”
In the middle of the “on vacation” week at Woody’s, something else did go wrong: The sewer pumps broke. Beck found herself personally cleaning the bar’s sewer system in the heat and the smell, which was “miserable,” she said: the air conditioner, the backup swamp coolers, the sewer system, all broken.
There was no way, Beck said, she could have opened the bar in 10 days, by July 12, when she was so desperately trying to get it open by the 15th.
Last week, she received a notice from DABS that she broke the 10-day closure rule. Her license would be forfeited. She would be expected for a public hearing at the next DABS commission meeting on Nov. 29 in Taylorsville.
“For years, I’ve had a license,” Beck said. “Do you think I give up my entire life for two days?”
Utah’s liquor laws
Utah is one of 17 states in the U.S. where liquor licenses are subject to per capita quota requirements. There are a variety of liquor licenses in Utah; a bar establishment license, which Woody’s has, means only customers over 21 can enter the establishment (and must scan IDs), and those customers can order an alcoholic beverage—beer, wine, or liquor—without needing to order food.
Other liquor licenses in the state allow restaurants or retailers to sell alcoholic beverages—for example, restaurants can serve alcohol only if people order food as well, and a tavern license allows a retailer to sell only beer—but none other than the bar establishment license allows people to order only (and any) alcoholic beverages.
Since 2018, Utah has limited its statewide bar establishment licenses to one license per every 10,200 people, meaning currently, there are only around 330 licenses for bars in the entire state (before 2018, the quota was one per every 7,850 residents). That is not a lot, especially considering the majority of those bar establishment licenses are concentrated in Salt Lake County—as of Nov. 16, 197 licenses were located there. Grand County currently has five retailers with bar establishment licenses: the Blu Pig, Josie Wyatt’s Grille, Spitfire Smokehouse & BBQ, The Spoke, and Woody’s.
All alcoholic beverage licenses are awarded by DABS, which has a commission made up of seven members. Competition for licenses has been cutthroat for years: Demand always exceeds supply. Licenses become available through population increases, or through a retailer forfeiting their license.
The commission has been vocal about the need for more licenses, or a higher quota, in the past: In November 2021, as Utah lawmakers were expected to make alcohol policy changes in the legislative session, then-DABS Commission Chair Thomas Jacobson said, “I know that every one of the commissioners is frustrated when they see businesses who are ready to go and operate a business and enthusiastic about operating a business, and we can’t do anything to help them at all,” as reported by Fox 13.
However, the quota went unchanged. Representative Timothy Hawkes told Fox 13 that legislators have to balance license availability with “managing social costs,” referring to DUIs.
The lack of licenses is frustrating for retailers and bar-goers alike.
“The fundamental issue comes down to a legislature seemingly unmoved and unwilling to address the [liquor license quota],” wrote Stuart Melling, founder of the food magazine Gastronomic SLC, in an August column for the magazine. “… We’re dealing with an artificially created nightmare, only four years or so in the making.”
A limited number of licenses
At its last meeting in October, the DABS Commission had only two bar licenses to award, picking between eleven applicants (including Proper Brewing, which is constructing a new location in Moab).
The commission generally favors establishments that are ready to go—fully constructed and staffed, with clear estimates of potential costs and profits—but will quickly take away licenses from establishments with violations.
During the October meeting, the commission revoked a license from The Sandtrap Cafe in Ogden, which has been closed since July due to a kitchen fire. As reported by The Salt Lake Tribune, the cafe’s owner, Rayna Olsen, told the commission she was unable to reopen the bar because the building was no longer up to code, and she had hoped to be able to keep her license and transfer the cafe to a new address. But because she had no timeline for reopening, the commission revoked the bar’s license. The extra license—making it three total to hand out at that meeting—was awarded to the Verse, an LGBTQ bar in Salt Lake City, which had been waiting for months.
The commission decided to award the other two licenses at a special meeting in November. By the end of the month, there will be a new population tally, so the commission expects to have three more bar licenses and two half-year seasonal bar licenses to award. But after that, no more licenses will be available until the next fiscal year begins in July 2023.
The commission’s next regular meeting, on Nov. 29, will include a public hearing for Woody’s.
A neighborhood fixture
“Woody’s has sixty years’ worth of history,” Beck said. “Generations have sat at this bar, and it means so much to so many people.”
Through tears, Beck listed the people who have come to and enjoyed Woodys: the actors and celebrities like Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, and Kevin Costner; the regular bands that play live music; the event-goers to Pub Trivia and Science Moab on Tap; the locals who come for a drink and a round of pool on weekends.
A petition listed on change.org, “Save Woody’s Tavern,” has over 1,000 signatures, with floods of comments about the bar.
“Woody’s in Moab is a critical cultural institution in our small desert town,” someone wrote. “Closing Woody’s would be a punishment to our community.” “Woody’s is a Moab must.” “Woody’s is a unique and irreplaceable part of our community history.” “Woody’s is a cultural epicenter.”
“I’m scared,” Beck said. “I can’t imagine Moab without Woody’s Tavern.”