Bar Fight

Longtime restaurateurs are battling school officials over a liquor permit at the former Scampi’s site.
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Posted May 26, 2010 by ERIC GRIFFEY in Eats

Scampi’s Mediterranean Café was a fixture in the Fairmount area for more than 15 years, a beloved ma-and-pa restaurant in an area full of them. But co-owners David Shaw and Ann Diakis-Shaw thought Scampi’s wouldn’t be Scampi’s without chef Theo Diakis, who had decided to retire. So the couple closed the restaurant on West Magnolia Avenue last year to give them time to remodel the building and relaunch as Jack Tanner’s Patio Grill, a new concept featuring a family-inspired menu, two outdoor patios, and full bar service.

The Shaws are still trying.

eats_1Getting a mixed-drink permit has proven to be more difficult than the couple ever imagined, thanks to a single opponent: the Fort Worth Independent School District. The district, which plans to open a school across the street from Jack Tanner’s, has filed several protests. In the end, the Shaws won their permit, but the delays cost them a lot of time and money. And the school district is still fighting. On Tuesday, district officials asked the school board for permission to file an injunction request with the state to prevent Jack Tanner’s from opening with a liquor license.

The school district owns the property across the street from Jack Tanner’s and plans to open the Young Women’s Leadership Academy there in August. The all-girls school, with about 150 sixth- and seventh-grade students, will be located in one of the city’s most active “urban villages,” with new businesses, including numerous restaurants and clubs, in the surrounding few blocks. District officials claim that because that as-yet-unopened facility has a “school number” registered with the state, it counts as having an actual school in operation, and a reason for the permit to be denied.

To get a mixed-drink permit in Texas, a restaurant or bar owner applies to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. If the establishment in question is within city limits, the TABC first refers the application to the city in question. If the city signs off on it, the TABC then processes the permit request. State law says that, in most cases, a liquor license may not be granted to an establishment within 300 feet of a school.

Previously, the school district property on Magnolia had served as an adult education center, which is not protected under the law. “The school at the time that we applied was an adult education school, and, under law, it’s not a protected school,” Shaw said.

District officials disagree. “Our building has had a school number from the Texas Education Agency since Dec. 9, 2009,” said district spokesman Clint Bond. “This designation was issued over three months before the establishment’s application was made on March 18, 2010. The TEA lists the school as under construction. … The city was aware we were going to protest before the application was filed for the permit.”

The city legal staff initially determined that the school site was not protected. The district appealed to the city, trying to convince the city lawyers to change the school’s status. The district filed a second appeal on the grounds that Jack Tanner’s would cause a nuisance. But both times the city staff stuck to their guns — although school officials were given numerous extensions on the time usually allowed for filing protests.

The result was that the Shaws’ mixed-drink application was stuck in bureaucratic limbo for almost three months. Last week, the TABC finally granted the Shaws’ liquor permit. But the cost in time and money has been enormous, Shaw said. “I’m on hold already,” he said. “It’s costing me a fortune to just sit over there, and I’ve signed a long-term lease. I’ve wrecked the building out completely. I’m not going to finish my plans until I know what’s going on.”

Prominent local attorney Steven H. Swander has dealt with his share of liquor permit cases in his career (including representing Hooters and many sexually oriented businesses), but he doesn’t have a client in this fight. But he said it seems to him that the school district is just following standard procedure. “They have a statute that directs them to protest alcohol permits within 1,000 feet of a school,” he said. “The normal reaction to any application is to protest it. In their mind, it’s school property, even though there is not a [protected] school.”

Paul Paine, president of Fort Worth South Inc., said that he supports the Shaws and believes that Jack Tanner’s will not be able to compete with the numerous other restaurants in the area if it can’t serve alcohol. Jack Tanner’s, he said, is exactly the kind of place that Fort Worth South has been trying to attract to that corridor. “It’s absolutely in line with everything we’ve been doing since Fort Worth South was created,” he said.

However, he said the school district’s opposition to the Shaws’ permit should have only minimal effect on Magnolia’s burgeoning restaurant row, one of the hottest dining-out districts in the city. Few other potential bar or restaurant properties are within the 300-foot zone, he said — though many believe the prospect of school buses clogging up Magnolia Street may constitute its own nuisance.

One place that could have been affected was Zio’s Italian Kitchen, which is less than 300 feet away from the school building. The TABC issued a liquor license to Zio’s within the past year, ruling that the school district property was not then protected by the law.

Paine said he finds it curious that the district is going to such great lengths to stop Jack Tanner’s permit. “It’s interesting because the school district has supported liquor licenses to other venues in the past, both when [the site] was Accelerated High School and as an adult learning center,” he said.

Shaw, who has been in the restaurant business since 1977 and has held liquor licenses at several other establishments without ever running afoul of the TABC, said that he is pleased that he has the license now but knows that his battle with the school district isn’t over.

“They’re going to fight it, and there is no reason,” he said. “I am so angry about it, and it is costing me a fortune.”

 

 


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