What does it take to get a drink around here? Navigating through 100 years of complicated laws is the current answer. After November, however, that may change.
Story by Jeff Siegel & Christina Hughes-Babb
It’s almost impossible to overstate how important next month’s wet-dry election is in Dallas’ social and cultural history. It’s not only the biggest wet-dry election in U.S. history since the end of Prohibition, but it’s also a landmark moment in Dallas. Since before Prohibition — for almost 100 years — most of Dallas has been dry in one form or another. It has been as much a part of Dallas as 100-degree days and the Cowboys.
In this, our wet-dry boundaries affected everyone. In dry areas, of course, residents have had to drive across town to buy a bottle of wine or a six-pack and couldn’t even order a drink in a restaurant until 1971. Even today, the private club limitations in dry areas that went into affect in 1971 make it more difficult to order liquor in Oak Cliff and North Dallas than in Lakewood. And even residents in wet areas feel the difference. If you live in a wet part of town that borders a dry area, you witness the Friday night flight to the liquor stores that guard the border.
All of this could change next month. If voters approve the two issues on the ballot, every restaurant in the city, regardless of wet-dry status, will be able to sell beer, wine and spirits without the private club paperwork, and retailers with the appropriate state licenses will be able to sell beer and wine.
In this month’s magazine, we look at the history of Dallas’ wet-dry status, our unique (and often frustrating) liquor laws, the role religion has played in keeping Dallas dry, and what it will mean to our neighborhood if voters approve both issues.
Will new liquor laws make it illegal to bring my own bottle of wine into my favorite restaurant?
It’s common to see Lake Highlands restaurant goers toting their own bottles into neighborhood eateries — see Tukta Thai, Tony’s or Zatos, for example — and new liquor laws might indirectly affect that trend.
Restaurateurs in dry areas, such as Lake Highlands, often choose not to pursue the private-club status necessary to sell alcoholic beverages because of the associated time and cost.
Luan Vraniqi, owner of Brothers Pizza, which once offered alcohol on its menu, says there is an “incredible amount of paperwork and extra cost involved” when it comes to selling spirits in a dry area.
“You have to keep track of members, or pay a company like Unicard to do it for you, anticipate liquor sales, train staff, buy extra insurance … and that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. And the payoff wasn’t worth it. “We didn’t lose money, but we didn’t really make money, either.”
If a restaurant doesn’t have a mixed-beverage license, it can allow patrons to bring their own alcoholic beverages, TABC communications director Carolyn Beck says. If Lake Highlands went “wet”, it wouldn’t necessarily change anything, but since it would make it easier for businesses to legally sell booze, they might start doing so.
For now, Brothers is BYOB. Vraniqi hasn’t decided whether he would obtain a license to sell again if it became easier, but he says it would make it a viable option.
“I would sure look at things differently. Some people like to be able to bring their own, but it is nice for people, if they crave a drink, for us to have it there for them. It changes the whole mood of a place — I think that’s more satisfying for the customer.”
Either way, he hopes the local option passes, because the hodgepodge of regulations annoys him.
“My neighbor a mile down the street can do something I am not allowed to do? That just magnifies the frustration.”
If Dallas votes “wet” will our neighborhood attract better restaurants and grocery stores?
A change in the existing liquor laws would make things easier and less costly for restaurant owners such as Luan Vraniqi of Brothers Pizza, who says that selling alcoholic beverages in a dry area requires a ridiculous amount of paperwork and fees to Unicard or a similar membership-management company.
New developments — Prescott Realty’s Lake Highlands Town Center, for example — might attract more restaurants and grocery stores if the area becomes wet. To date, no tenants for the 70-acre property have been announced, but Scott Wynne, Lake Highlands Area Improvement Association vice president of support and ING Clarion real estate investment manager, says things might change if this election passes.
“If it passes, and I think it will, we’re not living in the 1800s anymore. That is kind of the wild card,” Wynne says of the wet-dry election, adding that if our neighborhood becomes wet, “that will change a lot of things. When a grocery store can sell beer and wine, that makes all the difference to the bottom line, and for restaurants, too. There are all these sorts of hurdles that restaurants have to go through.
“I stopped short of ‘open the floodgates’, but I think there will be a big reaction, and that may be what Prescott is facing right now — I’ll call you in [a few] months.”
Vance Detwiler, president of Prescott Realty, declined to comment on the “wet-dry issues” and how the election might affect the Town Center.
Though it’s just one of many factors determining successful development, the ability to sell alcohol in a retail or restaurant location makes a difference, says David Wilson, president of Connected Development Services at The Retail Connection, a retail real estate firm with properties around Dallas. Some grocers will not move to dry areas.
Dallas resident Monte Anderson of Options Real Estate seconds that opinion.
“Most of them want to sell beer and wine, and that’s been an obstacle on the grocery store front,” Anderson says. A location being wet is “probably not the only thing, no, but it’s a big thing for companies like Whole Foods. What I hear from them is they are not coming without it.”
Wet-dry has always been controversial in Texas. In 1887, a leading anti-Prohibitionist, R.Q. Mills, accused the media of bias in its reporting of the wet side during the fight over adding a Prohibition amendment to the state constitution: “The Prohibitionists had a monopoly with our reporting,” and he said the media who had criticized his position were guilty of fraud.
And in 1920, prominent Dallas physician Dr. Curtice Rosser exchanged letters with his friend William Jennings Bryan, the thrice-failed Democratic presidential candidate, about the most important issues in the upcoming presidential election. They agreed it would be war profiteering, the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles (that ended World War I) and Prohibition.
Did Dallasites make moonshine?
Stills and corn liquor are not just hillbilly doings. In 1936, reported a Dallas newspaper, police raided a still in the “North Dallas Negro district” near what is today Cole and Lemmon. They seized 950 gallons of mash, but the still’s operators escaped — even though the newspaper reported that the police had staked out the house for most of the night.
What’s all this about “Class B retailers”?
Texas’ Class B system dates to 1971, as a companion to a law allowing restaurants and bars to sell liquor by the drink. Before that, no restaurant in Texas was allowed to sell liquor — even in wet areas (although they could sell beer and wine). Customers brought their booze with them from home, and the restaurant sold them setups — mixers, juices and the like.
The reason for the law? Retailers who thought liquor by the drink would cost them sales successfully lobbied state legislators, who gave them a monopoly on selling liquor to restaurants, bars and private clubs (restaurants that serve liquor in the state’s dry areas). Retailers said they would lose business because consumers would stop buying liquor at their stores to bring to restaurants. So the legislature agreed to give them the monopoly to make up for the lost sales.
Retailers who sell liquor to restaurants and private clubs are called Class B retailers, after the name of the license they obtain. They include some of the state’s best-known retailers, including Sigel’s and Goody Goody in the Dallas area. Texas is one of three states — Kansas and South Carolina are the others — with four tiers of distribution: manufacturer, distributor, retailer and restaurant. The other 47 just have three — manufacturer, distributor and restaurant.
According to this 1971 state law, every restaurant in Texas, whether it’s in a wet or dry area, must purchase liquor from a Class B retailer. The November election would not change this law; it would simply eliminate private clubs in Dallas and make every restaurant a restaurant, in terms of how it can purchase and sell alcohol.
The difference between private clubs and restaurants is that liquor can be delivered to restaurants in wet areas, whereas private club restaurants in dry areas must travel to a Class B retailer’s warehouse to pick up liquor — Sigel’s is near Harry Hines and Preston, and Goody Goody’s is in Addison, for example. Private clubs must also buy their beer and wine, but not liquor, from Class B retailers, while restaurants in wet areas can buy beer and wine directly from the distributors. Class B retailers also buy their beer and wine from distributors, which translates to a markup when the retailers sell it to private clubs.
What does this mean for consumers? Typically, but not always, they’ll pay more for alcohol in a private club. The extra tier adds cost to the product, and restaurants usually pass that onto their customers.
How do Texans outside of Dallas like their liquor?
Alcohol has never been especially popular with Texans. When Prohibition began in 1919, 199 of the 254 counties were dry; 43 were practically dry, including Dallas County. Even today, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, 29 of the 254 counties are still dry, and only 43 are completely wet.
It could be worse … what if the state owned our liquor stores?
In 18 states (and one county) in the U.S., the state owns the liquor stores. These are called control states, and though there are differences in how each state defines control (some states allow private retailers to sell wine or beer, for example), the result is that what is for sale is controlled by the state.
This is a legacy of Prohibition; the political compromise that made repeal possible allowed each state to pass its own liquor laws.
Pennsylvania has taken control one step further. Currently, grocery stores in Pennsylvania can’t sell wine. Instead, the state liquor authorities have installed wine vending machines, from which the customer can buy wine, similar to buying a soft drink or a candy bar from a vending machine. Similar, but with a couple of exceptions.
The consumer puts his or her driver’s license into the machine, where age information on the bar code is processed. The photo on the driver’s license is matched with a video image of the buyer at the kiosk, and a state liquor board employee monitors each transaction to confirm that the video of the buyer matches the driver’s license.
The basis for Texas’ wet-dry laws is local option, which does what it says: Local voters can decide whether to sell alcohol in their locality. It’s one of the cornerstones of the Texas liquor system, says Lou Bright, former general counsel for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
“The priority is that local voters always have the final say, and can’t be forced to change their local preference by someone from outside their locality,” Bright says. “This doesn’t mean that it’s not confusing or can’t be ambiguous, but that’s always the principle.”
How confusing? Consider what happened in 2006, when a group of North Dallas and Lake Highlands residents tried to schedule a wet-dry election for their respective sections of the city. The Texas Supreme Court ruled that the wet-dry election couldn’t be held because the election was designated for the current Justice of the Peace precinct boundaries, when it should have been designated for the boundaries established in 1877, when the area went dry.
State law defines localities three ways and uses the principle that the larger locality, such as a city, can’t force a smaller locality, such as a JP precinct, to change its behavior:
• Justice of the peace precinct. JP precincts are not voting precincts, but legal and administrative divisions within a county. One JP precinct can be dry, while the one next to it in the same city or county can be wet. Interestingly, Dallas’ wet-dry boundaries don’t follow the current JP lines, but older, less-well-defined JP boundaries.
• City. This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. A JP precinct that’s dry can’t be turned wet in a citywide election unless all of the precinct is within the city. This was one of the issues in the run-up to the November election, when there was some doubt as to whether the JP precinct in Oak Cliff that went dry in 1956 was contained within the city of Dallas. Turns out it was.
• County. Again, not as simple as it sounds, and for many of the same reasons. When Lubbock voted wet in 2009, the drys claimed that part of the county was dry from previous elections, and that a city-wide election couldn’t affect those areas — which included part of Lubbock. Their argument failed in court.
Religious groups have traditionally taken the lead in fighting wet-dry elections in Texas, and they played a key role 50 years ago when Oak Cliff went dry. But there doesn’t seem to be much organized religious opposition to November’s two wet-dry ballot issues.
Does this mean that neighborhood churches don’t care about the issue any more? Or that Dallas is less religious than it used to be?
No on both counts, several religious leaders say. It’s not so much that alcohol isn’t important; rather, it’s that other issues have become more important, and abstinence isn’t the issue it once was. In addition, Dallas has changed significantly from the smaller, predominantly mainstream Protestant city of the 1960s and 1970s to a million-plus population urban center that includes more Catholics, Jews and non-denominational Protestants — all of whom are less concerned about alcohol.
“We’re just getting to this point later than other cities,” says George Mason, pastor at the moderate Wilshire Baptist Church. “The city is more diverse, and we have more people who have different attitudes about this subject.”
Also, says Rev. Tim McLemore of SMU, alcohol is no longer the good vs. evil issue that it has traditionally been among the mainline Protestant groups that have been in the forefront of the U.S. temperance movement. Mason says this is even true for some conservative Baptists.
“We have knowledge about the benefits of the limited use of alcohol that we didn’t have 100 years ago,” says McLemore, who notes that the United Methodists have changed their views to allow “judicious use” of alcohol. “So we’re less inclined to take a black and white view.”
Finally, churches have less influence over their members than they did two and three decades ago. Times were, Mason says, if the church said not to drink, believers didn’t drink. These days, that veto power is largely gone.
What am I actually voting on?
Dallas voters will decide two issues in November’s wet-dry election:
1. Whether to eliminate the private club regulation for restaurants that sell alcohol in dry areas. The private club rule, in place since 1971, requires restaurants to admit customers into the restaurant’s club so they can buy alcohol. It also requires the restaurant to keep a paper trail of club members.
2. Whether to allow the sale of beer and wine, but not spirits, at retailers throughout the entire city. Currently, only one-third of Dallas — roughly White Rock Lake to Irving and downtown to Walnut Hill — is wet for retail sales.
If the Texas Supreme Court decides there are enough signatures to hold the referendum, the election will be held Nov. 2.
Registration to be eligible to vote in the election ends Oct. 4. Early voting runs Oct. 18-29.
• For more information: dalcoelections.org