SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Legislature tried earlier this year to clarify one of the state's restrictive liquor laws -- that restaurants cannot serve alcohol unless a patron is ordering food.
But some say the new law is still unclear, and now the state's liquor board is considering a rule requiring servers to get verbal confirmation that restaurant patrons intend to order food.
Critics say the rule is silly and creates awkward situations. Some say the entire requirement should be dropped.
"I guess I'm kind of confused on all this," said Democrat Sen. Gene Davis of Salt Lake City during a discussion of the state's liquor laws at the Utah Legislature on Wednesday. "My assumption is if you go to a restaurant, your intent is to order food."
Julie Wilson, the director of food and beverage at Deer Valley Resort said it is "extremely awkward" and annoying for servers to ask guests at a restaurant if they're there to dine.
Wilson told lawmakers that she thinks that it's obvious that if guests are in a restaurant, there's an understanding they intend to eat.
Instead, the Legislature should scrap the rule, Wilson said.
Paul Mero, with the conservative Sutherland Institute, said lawmakers should review alcohol policy only every five years, rather than allowing "special interest to passively aggressively chip away session by session," at the state's liquor restrictions.
"You either believe that this a government role in protecting the public interest or you doesn't," he said.
The Deseret News reported that the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control will consider a proposed rule in upcoming weeks that requires restaurants to get a verbal response from customers that they intend to order food. The rule would allow customers to have one alcoholic drink before ordering food.
If the alcohol board adopts the rule, a legislative rules committee must approve it.
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who has worked on much of the state's liquor legislation in recent years, said it's "silly" to ask customers if they plan to eat when they enter the restaurant. But he said once customers are seated and order alcohol, then servers can ask if they plan to order food.
"That seems like a more rational interpretation of the new statute," he said.
The law requiring food with alcohol service is intended to prevent restaurants from resembling bars, where food purchases aren't required. Establishments with a restaurant permit are required to make 70 percent of their sales on food, and only 30 percent on alcohol.
In 2012, state alcohol regulators handed out 48 citations to restaurants for serving alcohol without food, said Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control executive director Sal Petilos.
If servers are perpetually asking patrons if they intend to order food, the restaurants could feel inhospitable to patrons, he said.
Petilos believes the alcohol board can find a middle ground that would keep restaurants within the law and still serve patrons who want to drink and dine.
"The question becomes how much of a nanny you want to be," Petilos said "I prefer to not be much of a nanny."