Bars, restaurants object to law against booze logos


Jeff Lobdell, principal of Restaurant Partners in Grand Rapids, said many business owners would like to help promote the area by selling drinks in glasses with logos. Photo by Michael Buck

In most states — 49, to be exact — there is no law against a bar or restaurant serving alcohol in a glass bearing the Budweiser logo, or Bell’s, or Jack Daniel’s, or any other logo.

Not in Michigan, though, and a lot of people apparently don’t like that.

The Michigan Restaurant Association and Michigan Licensed Beverage Association jointly commissioned a recent survey of state residents, and the results “indicate strong support among Michigan residents to reform draconian laws banning the use of logoed barware items such as glassware and napkins at restaurants and bars,” according to the associations’ officials.

When asked if they would support or oppose legislation to change state law to allow restaurant and bar owners in Michigan to purchase what are known as “secondary use” items with the logos of products they sell, 75 percent of respondents stated they either strongly or somewhat supported the change. Only 9 percent opposed the measure, and 14 percent did not take a position one way or the other.

“It’s nice but not surprising to see the general public in line with the MRA that the ban on purchasing secondary use items is an unfair and unnecessary infringement on small business owners,” said Brian DeBano, president and CEO of the MRA.

“It’s a commonsense rule change that no one in the industry should oppose,” added Scott Ellis, executive director of the MLBA. “These items are allowed under federal statute, but they are prohibited from use in an establishment under Michigan’s archaic liquor code and rules.”

While states have widely varying liquor control laws and rules regarding the extent to which secondary use items may be given free to restaurants and bars by the booze industry, Michigan is the only state that prevents purchasing those items at fair market value.

The Michigan Liquor Control Code Act of 1998, the governing statute in the state, employs a broad interpretation of “aid and assistance,” preventing manufacturers and wholesalers from providing “property of any description” to a restaurant or bar.

Owners are frustrated with the ban, according to the two associations. Jim Holton, owner of Mountain Town Station restaurant, is the vice chairman of the board of the MRA and a member of the MLBA.

“In some cases, and especially with premium items like craft beer, providing a logoed glass adds value to the overall experience for the customer and should be made available. I’m not asking for a handout from a distributor — just the opportunity to respond to the demands of my customers,” Holton said.

Jeff Lobdell is the principal of Restaurant Partners in Grand Rapids, which owns well-known bars and restaurants from Grand Rapids to Traverse City including Beltline Bar on South Division Avenue. Lobdell said the Camarena tequila company has told him Beltline Bar serves more of its tequila than any other establishment in Michigan. He said if the restaurant wanted to serve Camarena margaritas in a Camarena-logoed glass on Cinco de Mayo, “we wouldn’t be allowed to do that.”

He understands the law may have been intended to prevent beer, wine and liquor makers from “pushing those products too hard.” However, the owners and staff at all licensed beverage businesses in Michigan have to be state certified for alcohol safety and serving techniques. He also noted that the success of the craft beer industry in Michigan is now “actually helping our state,” and many business owners would like to be able to help promote them by selling those brews in glasses bearing their own logos.

Another well-known publican from the region is Mark Sellers, who sees the Michigan no-logos law in an altogether different light — although he agrees it is “just weird.”

Sellers is the owner of Barfly Ventures LLC, the holding company for Grand Rapids Brewing Co., HopCat, Stella’s Lounge and McFadden’s. He pointed out that a bar or brew pub in Michigan is allowed to serve in logoed glasses “if it’s your own logo,” and HopCat does have HopCat glasses, but any logo at all on glasses is not necessarily a practical idea, he added.

Most establishments don’t serve in their own logoed glassware “because they get stolen so much. There is rampant theft of logo glasses. Some customers seem to think it is their right and privilege, if they order a beer, to steal the glass. We literally had to stop doing it at HopCat because the glasses cost us about $4 apiece. One out of every five that we ordered would walk out.”

The no-logos law in Michigan probably results in less theft of bar glasses in Michigan, said Sellers.

Sellers has read online comments by people justifying their theft of logoed bar glasses by saying, “Well, the bar gets it for free from the brewery.” That may be true in other states, he said, where breweries are permitted to give away logoed glasses as a form of advertising. “But so what? Somebody is still paying” for the glasses — either the brewery or the bar, he said.

Sellers conceded that one argument in favor of the law is rooted in the fact that big companies like Anheuser-Busch have much deeper pockets than other brewers, especially the smaller craft brewers like Bell’s or Founders. Budweiser could potentially offer a bar all the glassware it needs for free, said Sellers, in return for only having Budweiser on tap.

“There are some bars that will do it because they are cheap. So not having that may make it harder for the big guys to corner the market,” he said.

“My bars and breweries are doing just great right now, and frankly all this (controversy over the Michigan law) doesn’t matter one rat’s ass to me. Whether this gets passed or not or repealed is not going to affect my business. It’s just one of those things, just a weird law that only Michigan has. But it doesn’t mean that it’s that bad, really.”

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