City pulls the plug on Hoko’s Sushi Karaoke Bar

After a visit from the liquor compliance and enforcement division, Hoko’s Sushi Karaoke Bar (362 Powell Street) is no longer presenting live music. The East Side restaurant was a vital destination for music lovers and a venue in the Music Waste festival. But on August 22, when inspectors determined that the late-night crowd hadn’t ordered food and found a beer on-stage during a karaoke performance, Hoko’s decided to pull the plug on live shows.

Manager Jian Chao said that the move was necessary to honour Hoko’s Food Primary licence. “If people want to come for karaoke, I have to tell them the conditions: that everybody has to eat food,” she told the Straight.

Chao was touched by the reaction in Vancouver’s music community, which has seen another favorite grassroots venue slip away. “I feel lucky,” Chao said. “They’re like our friends.”

The Safe Amplification Site Society’s Jarrett Evan Samson said that Hoko’s had made itself viable in a rough neighbourhood. “They were so supportive,” Samson told the Straight, “and for them it was a good business opportunity.” Samson also emphasized that live music in Vancouver has taken another blow. “It was always one of my favourite venues,” he said with a sigh. “And it was so much fun playing a sushi restaurant.”

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11 Comments

surprise surprise

Sep 10, 2009 at 8:23pm

I feel like I am living in a parallel universe in this city sometimes: Every time a live music venue closes down, a city council member steps forward and reassures us all that there has been much positive change for promoters and patrons of live music in this city ("The Best Place On EARTH").
The only thing that speaks to the truth is the fact that live music venues continue to close down on a regular basis because of the actions of city bureaucrats.
WTF gives???

Vandy

Sep 12, 2009 at 1:02am

This "world class" city really fucking embarrasses me sometimes.

Footloose

Sep 13, 2009 at 10:25pm

I was in Hoko's on Saturday, August 21st and the inspectors were in there giving him a hard time on that night too. They've clearly got an agenda to shut Hoko's down. On this night, there was maybe 10 college student's having some drinks and dinner. It was pretty quiet, no band. The place was kind of dead. Everyone had ordered food including myself. Hoko looked like he was going to have a meltdown. The inspectors were going through everyone's reciepts and generally being a nuisance. I was amazed at what I was witnessing so I wrote down the details including the name and email address of one of the inspectors laying down the no-funs.

I should also mention that just getting to Hoko's was a GONG SHOW of crack heads, prostitutes, and people tweeking on meth. We all know this area and what it's like at night. You can do pretty much anything.

This is where your tax dollars are going Vancouver. Paying some twit to go through the bills of a handful of Karaoke singers on a Saturday night while the REAL problems in this city rage out of control.

The guy harassing Hoko that night was named: Edward Osei-Appiah and his email is: edward.oseiappiah@gov.bc.ca

A beer on the stage. puhleezze. Oh and you can't dance at Hoko's either, that's illegal too. Where's Kevin Bacon when you need him.

benedetti

Sep 13, 2009 at 10:55pm

The liquor board is trying to ticket Hoko's out of business. I have been going there for 3 years and it's a clean, honest business run by a great family who is trying to make a living in a tough neighborhood. I find it extremely sad and ironic that the city is focused on the amount of food that Hoko sells at his sushi restaurant in a neighborhood surrounded by hard drugs and prostitution. It's ridiculous to see rampant, excessive policing of a nice guy running a sushi restaurant. Nice work Vancouver. Get out the tazers and send out the Karaoke Gestapo why don't you? Way to punish a family restaurant that gave us a place to see indie bands and eat California rolls. I guess it's easier to pick on honest people then to deal with any real problems and why not earn some cash from a $7,500 dollar ticket too? It's too bad, this was the only place in my neighborhood i could go without getting stabbed. Shame on the city of Vancouver and the greedy, petty liquor board.

V alerie

Sep 15, 2009 at 12:25pm

Vancouver IS NOT A WORLD CLASS CITY! Try Montreal!

Jarrett Evan Samson

Sep 17, 2009 at 12:33pm

Whenever the city or newspapers talk of how the 'music scene' is gaining ground in this city, the problem is they are completely out of touch with what music in Vancouver actually means-- Venue and the Granville strip area isn't influencing or helping the people producing art within this city, it's helping the rich sell more alcohol and get richer. The idea that in an area like the downtown eastside the problem is a Sushi restaurant playing music over 90 db while a drink rests on a 3" raised platform is quite obviously insane, as is punishing Hoko and Jian for finding a way to attract new business to their restaurant in an area the city has left to die. How many families do you think are walking down Powell street looking for a restaurant to eat at?
The simple fact is, when not a month goes by where some venue or gallery in this city has to close, something is going seriously wrong, and nobody with the power to help actually seems to be doing anything about it. We've gotten to the point where we're now losing the Cobalt and Hoko's in the same month! It's ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous.

Elliot Langford

Sep 20, 2009 at 5:11pm

I'm right with everyone posting here, Hokos is such an important place for so many people, that inspectors are searching with a fine toothed comb for licensing violations is so ridiculous. It was an amazing venues for both established and up and coming musiicans... if Hokos is forced to close, that's really really sad

Ryan McCormick

Sep 25, 2009 at 10:53am

Here's a letter I just wrote to Mr Osei-Appiah and CC-ed to others at the Liquor Board, City and Provincial Gov't... I encourage any other concerned citizens to also write letters expressing your concern.

I am writing regarding Hoko's Karaoke and Sushi Restaurant at 362 Powell Street in Vancouver, which I understand you have recently issued a $10,000 fine to as a penalty for non-compliance with licensing regulations. Perhaps you are not aware, but Hoko's has become, over the past 3 years or so, a vital institution in Vancouver's live music community. It's one of the only small venues in town, where people of all ages are welcome, and where a band can play a concert regardless of how popular or cool they are or how many fans they will bring out. Hoko and Jian are open to music of any genre, and their four walls have become a safe-haven for artists who are otherwise left out in the cold.

I understand Hoko's is being fined because they are licensed as a food-primary establishment and food is not actually the primary purpose of their business. I do not disagree with you there; people come to Hoko's to socialize, listen to and perform music, sing karaoke, eat, and drink. If it were possible to get a license as "music venue / dance hall / karaoke room / restaurant / bar / cafe / community centre", then that would certainly be the right fit for them. Hoko's is an innovative place, with a lot of different functions. But just because the activities that take place there don't fall into any neat and tidy category of business license does not mean they shouldn't be able to exist! (They cannot afford to pay the fines that you are levying on them, and as a result of the penalties, they are closing down their business.) Does our system not provide a legal way for such an innovative multi-faceted business to exist in Vancouver? There must be a different kind of license they can get that allows for such things!

You've made it clear that the food-primary license Hoko's currently has does not permit them to operate as they currently do. However, instead of being told to change their activities to comply with their license, they should be encouraged to change their license to comply with their activities. Hoko and Jian are law-abiding citizens who do not wish to break the rules. They are sushi chefs, entrepreneurs and kind-hearted hosts who welcome a huge variety of musicians to use their space to perform in, free of charge. They are providing a tremendous benefit to the music community in Vancouver, and are causing no harm to anyone. But these people are not bureaucrats, and are not experts at understanding the city and liquor board's complex set of often contradictory regulations. English is their second language, and they need help navigating our system. They cannot afford the lawyers and advisers who often grease the wheels of bureaucracy on behalf of larger businesses. Hoko's is a tiny establishment, in a poor part of town. They do not deserve to be picked on. Rather than issuing fines indiscriminately, you and your organization should be making suggestions to businesses like this who fall into the grey area between different types of licenses. Instead of fining them, government organizations like yours should be helping businesses like Hoko's change their license to the one that best suits their activites. Or, if there is no such license, then there should be a process whereby a new type of license can be created. If we as a society only permit businesses to exist that fall into narrowly-defined pre-existing categories, then we will have an incredibly boring city where nothing new can ever be established. Hoko's is innovative, and they should not be punished for it.

Sincerely,
Ryan McCormick
Singer and Songwriter, Collapsing Opposites
Director and Secretary, Safe Amplification Site Society
Citizen, City of Vancouver and Province of British Columbia

Ryan McCormick

Sep 30, 2009 at 1:19am

I received this reply to my letter:

Mr. McCormick,

Thank you for providing your point of view on this subject. The Liquor Control and Licensing Branch cannot comment on the particulars of any compliance actions due to privacy concerns.

In general, licensed establishments are differentiated by whether they are a food primary (a restaurant that serves liquor as an accompaniment to food) or a liquor primary (bars, nightclubs, cabarets, pubs, etc). Obtaining a liquor primary licence is more onerous due to the community consultation required. This is because of the concerns that arise from having bars or taverns in any particular neighbourhood. Food primary licensees acting as a bar circumvents this community consultation process and is unfair to those licensees who have gone through the process, and it is unfair to the neighbourhood where there has been no opportunity to be heard on the question of whether or not it wants a bar in its neighbourhood. It is the local government that is responsible for consulting with the public on liquor primary applications.

Where the LCLB takes enforcement action, a licensee is provided with an opportunity to be heard before an adjudicator. If the adjudicator decides that a contravention has occurred, the decision is made public.

More information about the LCLB compliance and enforcement processes, and food primary licences and liquor primary licences is available on the LCLB web site.

Respectfully,

Donna Lister

Ryan McCormick

Sep 30, 2009 at 1:21am

And here's my response:

Hello Ms. Lister,

Thank you for your prompt and courteous reply. While I understand that you cannot comment on the particulars of Hoko's Restaurant, I should tell you that I have heard details about this case from several sources, including the owners of the restaurant, friends and acquaintances who were present on the night of one of the inspectors' visits and overheard their entire conversation, and also the recent articles in the Georgia Straight Newspaper.

The point I am trying to make is that Hoko's purpose is neither food-primary nor liquor-primary. People go there to socialize, listen to and perform music, sing karaoke, eat, and/or drink. I understand what you are saying that people cannot open liquor-primary establishments anywhere they please, and I agree that this is a good rule. But this business is NOT attempting to be a liquor-primary establishment. They are being punished for not being food-primary, and are not being made aware of any other options. There must be a third option besides liquor-primary and food-primary! And a fourth and fifth and sixth option as well!

In their visits, the inspectors from the Liquor Board have made the point that Hoko's is not acting as a restaurant. Customers do not sit still at one table, but move around freely talking to friends. People order food at the counter, rather than through a waiter or waitress. And many people don't eat. Some people eat without drinking, some people drink without eating, and many people don't order anything - they are simply there to see their friends and watch the bands that are playing that night. Many restaurants would not allow people to take up space on their premises without ordering anything, but Hoko and Jian don't mind this, because they prefer to keep a positive relationship with the people who attend the concerts, and if those people aren't hungry or thirsty one night, they probably will be the next time they come. As business owners, they have a right to allow non-paying customers to be there if they want to! But the inspectors from the liquor board have used all of this as evidence that Hoko's is not a restaurant and therefore does not adhere to the food-primary license they have been operating with. One of the inspectors even accused them of trying to run "a community centre" - as if that's a bad thing!

Like I said, Hoko's is an innovative place, with a lot of different purposes, and I agree that food-primary is probably not the most appropriate license for them to have. I also understand what you are saying that they cannot be licensed as liquor-primary without going through the community-consultation process with the city. My point is that their must be other options besides just food-primary and liquor-primary. There are plenty of other places in Vancouver that serve both food and alcohol yet are not licensed as either a restaurant or a bar. Stadiums like BC Place and GM Place, large concert halls like the Orpheum and Queen Elizabeth Theatre, and small theatres like the Firehall and Arts Club come to mind. How is it that these spaces, which are neither food-primary nor liquor-primary, can be licensed without a problem, while Hoko's cannot? I'm hoping that they CAN get a different type of license, and simply are not aware of what other options exist. If they can, then the liquor board should be making businesses like this aware of what alternative license choices there are before fining them for violating the one that they have. Or, if they CAN'T get a different type of license, then the owners deserve an explanation of why not, and concerned citizens need to campaign for a change of the rules, because a system that allows for only two types of liquor licenses (food-primary and liquor-primary) seems both closed-minded and unfair.

I look forward to continuing this dialogue.

Thanks,

Ryan McCormick