Liquor license quest overcomes challenges
Nazmi Hoxha spent three-and-a-half years and about $82,000 getting a liquor license from the city of Kentwood.
Why so complicated? No one’s really sure, but his story is certainly one no small business owner would want to go through and calls into question the efficiency of city codes on the matter.
Hoxha came to the United States in 1997 as a refugee from Kosovo. In 2003, he started Al-Bos Euro Café and Bakery. Part restaurant, part bakery and part store, Al-Bos features Eastern European dishes, delicacies and groceries, and has become quite popular among local Eastern European immigrants.
The 8,500-square-foot space that houses all three is located at 2930 Shaffer Ave. SE in Kentwood,right across from Woodland Mall.
In February 2012, Hoxha decided to get a liquor license for his restaurant so he could serve authentic Eastern European wine and beer with meals.
“The whole thesis with the kind of food he serves is this: Dinner where these people have immigrated from means wine and beer with the meal. That’s the whole thing,” said Jim Storey, who spent eight years as hearing commissioner for the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, and has been working with Hoxha on acquiring his license since the beginning.
Hoxha filed an application with the city of Kentwood for a liquor license in February 2012. The first issue to arise was seating.
At that time, “the city’s ordinance said you had to have 100 seats. In March, they changed it to 150,” Storey said. “But the application was already in hand. The ordinance went into effect in March (the next month) changing the ordinance to 150.”
“And (Hoxha) applied in February while (the requirement was still 100) so, technically — in my opinion — he could’ve been grandfathered if they had processed the application. But they did not cash the check.”
Hoxha and Storey said they then went to Kentwood’s Economic Development Corp., asking if the ordinance could be changed back. Storey felt it was unreasonable to enforce those details at the last minute.
“Well, in their minds, it’s reasonable because they want to hold out liquor licenses for the big developments that come in,” he said.
No progress was really made until 2013, when Storey realized there was a mayoral election coming up. Hoxha and Storey asked to meet with each of the Kentwood mayoral candidates. Steve Kepley agreed to do so.
That October, one month before the election, the three of them huddled together in a booth in Al-Bos for almost three hours, talking about the situation. Kepley was understanding about the need for the license and said that, if elected, he’d work to get the seating requirement back down to 100, Storey said.
“And he did. When he became mayor, he had an ordinance drafted. And of course we had to go testify on that ordinance, so we had to go through a whole other round of meetings with the EDC, meeting before the city commission meetings, the city commission meetings — and finally, about mid-year 2014, they changed the ordinance back to 100,” he said.
Their next challenge was to apply for one of the two quota licenses that were remaining.
“After every census, the Liquor Control Commission sees what the population is of each community, city, township or village. And you’re entitled to one license for every 1,500 people. Well, Kentwood’s population went up enough as a result of the 2010 census, (and) they got more licenses. They had two licenses left that they had not awarded,” Storey said.
Hoxha applied for a tavern license, which would allow him to serve wine and beer.
“Quota is the most flexible license. … It’s also the most inexpensive. It’s a virgin license. You can get the license issued for the first year’s licensing fees, which are about $1,300, versus going on the open market.”
Hoxha went through several meetings of the EDC before it was finally recommended to the city commission that he receive a license. The city commission tabled it, however, “because we had to have people come in and look at the restaurant. People would drop in and say, ‘We’re not sure this is the right place for this license,’” Storey said.
“We get the city commission to approve it, but then they come up with what’s called a ‘development agreement.’ (They said), ‘We’ll give you preliminary approval, but we’re not going to send the resolution to the Liquor Control Commission unless you sign this development agreement,’’ he said.
“A development agreement says, ‘You’re not going to move the license out of Kentwood. … You won’t move that license without our permission. You won’t ask for a Class C License without our permission,’ and a bunch of other requirements in exchange for awarding this license. … Those are the main things.
“We did sign it, but we negotiated for a couple of months on it because we thought, ‘Why should we give up our right?’ When you get a license, it’s a right. This is a personal piece of property, a liquor license in Michigan. … But it was clear they weren’t going to budge on it, so we just signed it to move on.”
Then the fire marshal got involved. While Hoxha had been told the ordinance required him to have at least 100 seats to get a liquor license, he wasn’t told having more than 99 seats required a fire-suppression sprinkler system.
That cost another $18,000.
“There isn’t enough water on this side of the street to take care of the sprinkler system. So, then he has to hire a contractor … to dig under 29th Street to connect to the Grand Rapids municipal water system, which is now another $45,000 to dig across that street, and of course, another delay,” Storey said.
“The ironic part is, had he stayed at his original 99 seats, he wouldn’t have had to put the sprinkler system in, but he couldn’t get the liquor license because he had to have 100 seats. This is government run amuck.”
An even more ironic aspect to all this, in Storey’s mind, is how quickly it came to a close. Once the city gave the approval, the state jumped on board with almost instant approval.
Storey called it “the most frustrating case I’ve ever had,” but said it is not unusual in Michigan for local governments to try to bootstrap things they want to get done to the approval of a liquor license.
“We have a governor who says we ought to be welcoming immigrants and welcoming these kinds of entrepreneurs to our country, and yet we’re making it very difficult for them to start a business and keep a business going. …
“How many Americans would put up with a three-and-a-half-year process to get a license to sell something so commonly accepted by the populace? I never ever heard (Hoxha) say a negative word about any individual in the Kentwood city government.”
Dan Kasunic, Kentwood’s city clerk, said the steps involved were routine and followed city code.
“In our ordinance, it states that a restaurant that seats 100 or more has to have fire suppression with the sprinkler, so with that being said, we couldn’t get them licensed because they were installing (the sprinkler system) in pieces,” he said.
“It isn’t one business. We require all those for any business going through a liquor license now. … And yes, (Al-Bos is) a good fit. … They went through city commission approval and they achieved it. There were just some conditions attached to that.”
Storey said he doesn’t believe local governments should have more stringent requirements than the state when it comes to liquor licenses.
“I don’t think anything illegal was done. They just did something that was allowed by law,” he said. “It just goes to show we’re not done yet with the need to get rid of outdated, onerous regulations that do nothing for public safety.”
As for Hoxha, he finally received his liquor license earlier this month.
The first thing he did was pour himself a drink in his restaurant. He was, after three and a half years, legally entitled to do so.
“We come — everybody here, my customers — we come from war. We come as refugees here. We understand here in the United States there is law for how it’s supposed to be,” Hoxha said. “But after you go inside of law, you see it separates. … In the end, everything passed and we are very happy.”