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Kansas City repeals ‘ridiculous’ liquor permit rule long hated by bar and restaurant workers

Bartender Mark Sappington prepares a Covfefe drink for the James Comey hearing watch party at Thou Mayest in Kansas City, Mo. The drink is a white Russian garnished with a Cheeto. A Bloody Mary, renamed as the Sickle and Twitter, was also garnished with a Cheeto.
Frank Morris
KCUR 89.3
A Kansas City bartender prepares a drink in 2017. Bartenders and other employees at bars and restaurants were required to get employee liquor permits. The Kansas City Council voted to get rid of that rule.

The requirement involved a background check that kept people with felony convictions from getting liquor cards.

Service industry workers will no longer need liquor licenses from Kansas City to work at restaurants or bars and serve alcohol, freeing them of what many people in the industry have long seen as a cumbersome, unnecessary requirement.

On Thursday, the Kansas City Council unanimously voted to remove the liquor license requirement (three council members were not present). The rule applies to any worker in a restaurant or bar involved in the serving or selling of alcohol.

Employee liquor permits cost $42. To get one, servers and bartenders have had to sign up online through CompassKC, the city’s online permitting system, and then go to the Regulated Industries building in Northeast Kansas City to get their picture taken and obtain their license card, which is valid for three years.

The license does not require any education or test about serving alcohol. Rather, the fee pays for a background check on the employee. The primary purpose is to weed out people based on their criminal history. Repealing the permit requirement means people with felony histories can work in the industry, although the ordinance requires managers to not hire anyone convicted of a sex crime.

The ordinance was sponsored by Mayor Quinton Lucas, 1st District-at-Large Councilman Kevin O’Neill and 6th District-at-Large Councilwoman Andrea Bough.

The mayor’s office said repealing the liquor card requirement would have a minimal impact on Regulated Industries, the department that oversees alcohol-related businesses.

A ‘ridiculous’ rule

Kansas City’s employee liquor license permit doesn’t just apply to bartenders or servers. A presentation linked on the city’s website says the rule applies to waiters, cashiers, sales clerks and even door workers who check IDs.

“I always thought it was one of the most ridiculous requirements we required out of the service industry people in this town,” said Bradley Gilmore, chef-owner at Lula’s Southern Cookhouse in downtown Kansas City. “It's been an outdated policy that's been around for way too long.”

Gilmore said repealing the requirement would make it easier to hire staff. Ian Davis, owner of Blip Roasters in the West Bottoms, agreed. The coffee shop recently started selling alcohol.

“Considering that almost every restaurant that I know of is trying to hire right now, removing that from an already pretty extensive checklist of requirements for onboarding new staff would definitely help for sure,” Davis said.

Bough said Kansas City is one of a few cities that has an employee liquor license requirement. Independence also requires employees to have a liquor permit, but neither Johnson County or Wyandotte County require individual employees to get liquor permits.

“It's really a burden to those in the industry to have to get a card to serve liquor,” Bough said.

Bill Teel, executive director of the Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association, said the liquor card requirement was first created to keep organized crime out of bars in Kansas City.

“Over the years, that risk has long gone away, and yet it's been kept in place under the guise of somehow protecting public safety,” Teel said. “It just doesn't serve that purpose in our opinion.”

The ordinance also requires restaurants and bars to check the National Sex Offender Registry and not hire people who have been convicted of sex crimes. Bough said that provision would cover some of the protections that the liquor card requirement was meant to address.

“This is really a way to build in the ordinance, a provision that protects or at least allows someone to check the registry, but do so in a way that doesn't overburden the employees and really the employers as well,” Bough said.

Teel said the liquor card requirement has been a barrier to employment for people with felonies on their records.

“They could not be a server, a bartender (or) even a restaurant manager or assistant manager,” Teel said. “So they were relegated to lower paying jobs in the back of the restaurant, in the kitchen and other places.”

David Lopez, general manager at Manny’s Mexican Restaurant, said removing the requirement will allow restaurants to give people a second chance.

“We're a second chance industry. We want to help people make their lives better,” he said. “People need jobs and we want to give them jobs. So removing this hindrance allows us to do what Kansas City does best, which is help our community from the inside and the out.”

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
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