Tuesday’s Bottled Blonde hearing at City Hall was the final scheduled hearing date in a trial date that started in June. Now deputy hearing officer Robert Nolan will sort through the evidence and make a recommendation to the city on whether or not to pull the establishment’s liquor license. Nolan should notify attorneys with his findings via a letter sent within about 60 days from Tuesday’s hearing date.
Bottled Blonde’s side had only one person testify on its behalf on Tuesday morning. The hearing process, which started four months ago, has endured several delays from vacations, to drug arrests, to holidays. Disgruntled neighbors blame Bottled Blonde for altering the ways they live. They have complained to city officials and police about traffic, safety, vomit, and drunken patrons since the bar opened in November 2015. They haven’t seen the response they expected. City attorney Rachel Berger argued on their behalf on Tuesday and said that Bottled Blonde has had “complete disregard for alleviating any of the issues.”
Residents saw a way to solve their problems and pushed city officials to shut the place down by claiming that Bottled Blonde fraudulently presented itself as a restaurant instead of a bar when securing the needed city approvals before it opened in 2015. The city drafted an operating plan with Bottled Blonde’s ownership in which they agreed that less than half of Bottled Blonde’s annual sales would come from selling booze. If the percentage goes beyond 49 percent, then they’re operating a bar, not a “contemporary” Italian restaurant.
Bottled Blonde attempted to address that through testimony on Tuesday. Bottled Blonde office manager Walter Shuberg — who angry neighbors would later point out is not an accountant — presented a balance sheet that showed 49 percent of Bottled Blonde’s $9 million in sales from March 2016 through February came from alcohol. If those numbers were accurate, they were in the clear.
Berger called that creative bookkeeping, noting that it’s a coincidence that Bottled Blonde’s calculations managed to exactly satisfy agreement. The city previously claimed that 60 percent of Bottled Blonde’s sales came from liquor. Shuberg added another column — “table fees” — the balance sheet. Table reservations for bottle service accounted for 18 percent of profits, which decreased liquor sales to the city’s target. Bottled Blonde is arguing that bottle service should not count as liquor sales: “I could not understand that calculation,” Berger said.
In his closing statement Bottled Blonde’s attorney Nicholas Ftikas argued that all of the neighbors’ testimony was circumstantial and that the city “has fallen well short of the burden” to revoke the liquor license. He said that residents could not trace the vomit and loiters seen outside to Bottled Blonde: “River North is one of the most-vibrant restaurant, bar, and entertainment districts in the city,” he said. “It’s packed with people who want to enjoy a night out in Chicago.”
Ftikas went on to tout the lack of criminal activity at Bottled Blonde as reason it should keep its license: “There’s no allegations of violence or weapons charges. There’s no gang activity. There’s no drugs or gambling charges. There’s no prostitution,” he said. “No history of bad behavior. No selling to minors or operating beyond the hours of operation. There isn’t even a substantiated noice complaint, yet we’re here defending our licenses and our reputations before the city.”
Neighbors have complained about noise via testimony both at the hearing and at the community meetings that took place in the summer of 2016. As for bad behavior, Ftikas neglected to mention the Bottled Blonde’s controversial racist dress code.
Even after Nolan delivers a recommendation, neighbors are aware that the end isn’t in sight. There’s also an appeals process. Meanwhile, Bottled Blonde, an Arizona import, continues to provide its patrons with a place to party in River North.