How government regulations are stifling Vancouver’s late night economy

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      By Michael Pedersen

      When it comes to nightlife, Vancouver has long held a reputation for being a “No Fun City.” Just take a walk down Main Street, Commercial Drive, or Water Street and you’ll struggle to spot a single venue that allows standing or mingling.

      Bars play a vital role in any nightlife, and yet they’re sorely missing from a city that even locals describe as cliquey and lonely.

      Instead, the most popular hospitality districts are dominated by restaurants, where guests are legally required to be seated and siloed in their own groups. Vancouver has certainly earned its no fun tag—but it’s because of government design, not consumer choice.

      In BC, there is a distinction between food-primary licences (restaurants) and liquor-primary licences (bars and nightclubs). Food-primary establishments must provide a table and seat for all guests and ensure they stay seated during service. The kitchen must also be serving until close, which leaves little incentive to stay open late due to staffing and operational costs.

      Liquor-primary establishments, on the other hand, have the broadest class of licence, which unshackles the business from table seating and kitchen rules and allows venues to stay open later—which in turn, boosts revenue capacity. It seems like the obvious choice if you just want to open a bar, but the road to securing a liquor-primary licence is complex, costly, and time consuming.

      As a result, many hospitality entrepreneurs with new bar concepts have little option but to start bringing revenue in as a food-primary restaurant while they undertake the long application process for a liquor licence. Even if all requirements are met, the decision still comes down to a council vote, so submitting an application in the first place requires a huge leap of faith and a large wallet.

      Cameron Bogue is one of those entrepreneurs who took the gamble and won. The 25-year industry veteran was ready to pursue his passion project after opening nightclubs, bars, and restaurants for the likes of Steve Davidovici in Las Vegas, Daniel Boulud in New York, and Earls Restaurants in Canada.

      In August 2022, Bogue opened Mount Pleasant Vintage & Provisions on 6th Avenue as a food-primary restaurant. (He submitted applications for both a food-primary and liquor-primary licence, because his dream was to eventually operate as a fully fledged bar.)

      After 19 arduous months and $40,000 spent on fees, consultants, and third-party tests, Mount Pleasant Vintage & Provisions was finally approved for a Dual Licence Liquor Primary in June of this year. The licence allows Bogue’s establishment to operate as a bar starting at 10pm and to extend opening hours to 1am on weekdays and 2am on weeknights, which results in both financial and social benefits.

      “When we get busy in the evenings, we remove all the seats on [the rear] side and you can walk up and grab your drinks—and then the back patio is a place to just mingle and walk around and there are no reservations,” Bogue says. “We built the bleacher seating, got rid of all the picnic tables, we’re having high tops that we’re having modified to go against the wall back there, just imploring people to stand and set your drinks and chill.”

      Bogue’s ‘70s-inspired cocktail bar and grill has been a huge hit over the past year with guests loving what he describes as “an adult amusement park with surprises around every corner.” Mount Pleasant Vintage & Provisions features a 1901-built heritage building at the entrance, and the service area is flanked by front and rear patios featuring vibrant murals. The establishment screams “game-changer” in a city bereft of fun ideas.

      While Bogue is relieved to have passed the hurdle of becoming a bar, he’s frustrated by the entire application process, which presents planning problems from the jump.

      “My goal would be to open a bar from day one, but nobody has that type of money. I can’t sit on a place for two years waiting for a liquor licence,” he shares. “You’re designing something that needs to operate like a restaurant but with the goal of being a bar…there are a lot of challenges. How do we design seating? Am I paying for tables we’re going to move later?”

      To put things into context, for many years there was a moratorium on new standalone liquor-primary licences in the Granville Entertainment District (GED) and Downtown Eastside (DTES), which has been ruling out new downtown entrants since the ‘90s. Across the rest of the city, there are strict minimum distancing regulations in place, which spreads liquor-primary licences thin and creates a nightlife vacuum in the outer, mixed-use districts. When you add cost-prohibitive timelines into the mix, it’s easy to see why the nightlife landscape in Vancouver has remained stagnant for so long.

      The City of Vancouver’s red tape has also played a significant role in stymieing the impact of positive legislation change at the provincial level. For instance, when the BC government first introduced dual licences in 2017, there were no eligible applicants in Vancouver until last year when the city removed its own roadblocks.

      Thanks to the initiative of Councillor Pete Fry, in June and July of 2022, council voted to lift the moratorium on new liquor-primary licences in the GED and DTES and suspend the 2005 policy guidelines regarding liquor establishment distancing. These changes applied only to existing food primary restaurants that wanted to obtain a dual licence.

      Finally, the conditions were right for three establishments to apply: Cinema Public House, Cold Tea, and Hamburger Mary’s. Under the new leadership of Mayor Ken Sim, all applications were approved by council on March 8 of this year—over six years after dual licensing was legalized. A handful of other dual licence approvals have since followed, including that of Mount Pleasant Vintage & Provisions.

      It’s an important step in the right direction, and a major part of the effort is keeping the big picture in mind when applications face opposition. For too long, vocal “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) residents have held sway over council decisions.

      “Based on the history of this city under [Mayor] Stewart, everything was denied based on one NIMBY. Liquor stores would get shut down because parents would come together and say how bad it is for the neighbourhood,” Bogue recalls. “The city just has a track record of listening to the minority and cancelling fun.”

      When asked what he would fix about the whole application process, Bogue is emphatic.

      “Timeline. The time it takes is absurd. People can’t afford to sit on a place and pay rent. Other markets will approve things within days,” he says. “It’s just taking way too long, so time is the one thing that really needs to be fixed—as well as the polarity between a liquor primary and food primary. Creating this distinction has not worked. We have defunct nightclubs all over this city. We have shells of public houses. So, it’s obvious it’s not working by separating these two licences.”

      Given licensing policy is determined by the BC government, it’s clear that change will need to occur at both the provincial and local levels to help revolutionize the industry and give entrepreneurs the creative freedom they need to thrive.

      Consumer trends and tastes have outgrown a system that pigeonholes establishments into becoming either a restaurant or a nightclub. Younger generations are seeking new cultural experiences and connections in the age of an increasingly online world. But without opportunity, there is no supply to meet demand. The licensing structure in BC leaves a gaping hole in the market for venues that welcome diners and socializers alike.

      In comparable countries like the UK and Australia, pubs are an institution where guests can order a meal at the bar and collect it from the kitchen themselves when their assigned buzzer goes off. This allows complete freedom of movement in the venue and an integration of all guests, regardless of their intent to dine or drink. A free market in BC could incentivize casual dining restaurants to head in this direction, or at the very least, allow a separate lounge area for those looking to make new friends.

      While dual licences have allowed restaurant operators more freedom in the evenings, the polarity between a food-primary and liquor-primary licence remains. Establishments must adhere to food-primary rules until 10pm, effectively switching from one licence to the other. Bogue thinks a liberalized approach to licensing will help raise standards across the board.

      “I believe in an equal playing field for everybody. Any restaurant that wanted to do it [get a liquor licence] should have the opportunity to. Then it just comes down to your operational model or what your business plan is,” he says. “I want everybody to benefit from doing better. I think it’s very small-minded to just think about your own business.”

      When the rate of progress is so slow, it makes you wonder if there is a lack of public desire for things to change. After all, you can’t miss what you’ve never had. The consensus on societies’ state of loneliness, however, is all the evidence Bogue needs.

      “We went into the most extreme social isolation,” he says of Covid. “So we need it more than ever to have these types of places for people to gather.”

      Governments at both the provincial and local levels have always had a conservative approach to liquor policy in BC, but Bogue believes we’re well overdue for a regulation overhaul.

      “I think whoever came up with [liquor regulations]...there was intention behind it, whether it was keeping the public safe or not letting nightclubs get out of control,” he muses, “but it hasn’t shifted with time. That might have been the perception in the ‘90s, but we’ve had 20, 30 years on this draconian system.”

      As BC’s most influential city, Vancouver has an opportunity to lead the way by removing barriers to entry and facilitating competitive equality in the hospitality sector. If the industry is allowed to breathe, it could be the proof of concept needed for the BC government to go a step further and liberalize licensing.

      Whether Vancouverites realize it or not, they’re being deprived of opportunities to connect with their fellow residents. It’s time this city stands up and earns its place on the world stage.

      Michael Pedersen writes a Substack about the Vancouver hospitality industry.