- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 24, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah regulators declined to rule Tuesday on whether Starbucks can serve beer and wine at some locations, saying they want lawmakers to determine if the cafes can be considered restaurants eligible for alcohol licenses.

The company sought a permit for five Utah locations, but commissioners with the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control were uncertain if Starbucks can be considered a restaurant because its food is heated and served rather than prepared on site, chairman John T. Nielsen said.

“Those kinds of things need to be resolved before we open this because if Starbucks is successful in obtaining this type of license, where does that end?” Nielsen said.

Two Starbucks Corp. representatives at the meeting declined to comment, and messages left with the corporate office were not returned.

Starbucks currently offers alcohol at 75 stores in 10 states. The company is seeking the permit in Utah to serve alcohol at cafes in Holladay, Lehi, Farmington, Park City and Salt Lake City.

Nielsen didn’t know if lawmakers will take up the issue when they meet in January.

State Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who’s working on legislation related to Utah liquor laws, said he thinks Starbucks might be stretching the definition of a restaurant. He intends to review the issue further.

Such delays are common for applicants seeking new licenses in the conservative state, where legislators and officials have long worried that opening up alcohol laws could increase drunkenness and underage drinking.

In recent years, state liquor commissioners have questioned whether a special permit sought for an Oktoberfest celebration was designed for charitable events rather than for-profit ones.

If Starbucks is eventually approved for a license, the cafes would need to conform to some of the state’s quirkier alcohol laws, including a requirement for some restaurants to pour alcoholic drinks into glasses behind barriers or in separate rooms, away from public view.

The requirement has been dubbed the “Zion curtain” as a reference to the Utah-based Mormon church, which directs members to generally avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages such as coffee and tea. About 55 percent of the state’s population belongs to the faith.

Supporters argue the separate preparation areas prevent restaurants from looking like bars and curb underage and binge drinking. Opponents argue there’s no proof of that and the requirement is unfair to restaurants.

Starbucks would also have to comply with a state law requiring customers in restaurants to order food with their alcoholic drinks. The rule has caused controversy as restaurants try to cater to customers who expect to have a drink before considering what to eat.

Guidelines adopted by state liquor commissioners two years ago instruct restaurants to confirm a patron’s intent to dine by asking if they’ll order food with a drink, something the industry said was awkward and unnecessary.

Like other Utah restaurants, Starbucks would have to ensure that 70 percent of sales at the cafes come from food. That would include coffee, said Nina McDermott, director of compliance and licensing enforcement at the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Starbucks first began offering its “Starbucks Evenings” menu of beer, wine and small dishes at a Seattle location in 2010. The dishes, such as flatbreads and truffle macaroni and cheese, range from about $3 to $5.

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