Sting nets 10 Basalt businesses for serving alcohol to minors
Employees at 10 Basalt liquor stores and restaurants were cited for serving alcohol to minors Wednesday night in an undercover operation headed by the Basalt Police Department.
Sgt. Stu Curry said Basalt police worked with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, which supplied two undercover officers, and the Colorado Department of Liquor Enforcement. The state agency provided funding and expertise.
“They wanted us to do it around the X Games, when there were more young people in town,” Curry said. A minor male and female were enlisted for the sting.
The owner of one of the establishments called the operation “borderline entrapment” for the way it was conducted.
The 10 businesses that were cited were Asiana Fusion Restaurant in Willits Town Center; Basalt Wine Shop downtown; Cuvee World Bistro downtown; El Korita in Willits; Jimbo’s liquor store downtown; Riverside Grill downtown; Stubbies, along Highway 82; 7-Eleven in Basalt; Tempranillo downtown; and Zheng Asian Bistro in Orchard Plaza.
Two of the businesses, Cuvee and Asiana Fusion, were also cited in an undercover sting headed by Eagle County in August.
All establishments that sell liquor in Basalt were tested. Curry was unaware of the number that passed.
In the past, Basalt Police Department has let the state and Eagle County handle the compliance checks for underage drinking, Curry said. The department decided to lead this effort because it will be able to play a greater role in enforcement and could be more flexible, he said. If Eagle County or the state handled the citations, the establishments could lose their liquor licenses as part of the penalty.
“If we do it, and we write the tickets, we can talk to our liquor board, which is the council,” Curry said. The police will be looking to see if the businesses demonstrate they will train their employees better on carding anyone that looks like they might be a minor, he said.
Curry said the Basalt Police Department is more interested in education and improvement than “enforcing our way out of it.” He stressed that virtually all the establishments cited perform well in other liquor license responsibilities, such as not over-serving. “All in all, they do a great job,” he said.
Mike Mercatoris, co-owner of Zheng, said a server at his restaurant “messed up” by serving the female minor in the undercover sting. They will take responsibility for their actions, he said.
“They’re doing their job – that’s great,” Mercatoris said. But he felt the Basalt Police Department could have handled concerns about possible underage serving differently, in the spirit of cooperation. They could have urged all liquor license holders in the town to be extra vigilant because of minors in town for the X Games rather than try to catch them in a sting, he said.
Mercatoris said his staffs serve 100,000 patrons annually in three establishments in the valley. “We’ve never had any kind of liquor license violation,” he said.
He has personally served alcohol at bars and restaurants throughout the valley for 20 years, the last nine as an owner. He said over-serving is a problem at some establishments. Bar patrons have “died in snowbanks” because of irresponsible serving, he said. Other people get served until they are visibly intoxicated and pose a danger behind the wheel.
“That’s never happened on my watch,” Mercatoris said. In fact, he and his staff have provided rides home for people who have come into his establishment already intoxicated. He and his workers watched out for the patrons’ welfare by not letting them drive and by not serving any more alcohol.
On Wednesday night, the female minor in the undercover operation sat down in Zheng with an “older man,” Mercatoris said. “She looked like she was with her father.”
A female server was distracted by another table of patrons seated nearby because members of that group looked like they might be underage, according to Mercatoris. The server took the drink order of the minor and her older escort, then proceeded to card the young-looking patrons at the other table.
The minor female in the sting operation ordered a Bud Light. When it was served, she and her escort immediately got up and departed. An undercover officer was at the end of the bar. The server was cited.
“Was it wrong (to serve the girl)? Yes. Borderline entrapment? Yes,” Mercatoris said.
He said serving the minor was a rare mistake for his restaurant. The server who was cited has attended responsible serving classes, which local governments require of employees of establishments that serve liquor.
Liquor accounts for less than 15 percent of his total sales, he said. Zheng “balances” its only drink specials with appetizer specials to make sure patrons aren’t over-served. The special package pairs a drink with an appetizer.
The bottom line, Mercatoris said, is his staff will boost its usual diligence in checking identification of young patrons who order alcohol.
“Will we miss it again? No,” he said.
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