Traverse City News and Events

TC Restaurant, Bar Owners Seek To Combat “Party City” Reputation

By Beth Milligan | July 21, 2018

As Traverse City commissioners have recurring discussions over whether there are too many liquor licenses operating in the city, restaurant and bar owners – the very group making their livelihood selling alcohol – are expressing similar concerns that Traverse City’s “party city” reputation is spiraling out of control.

Representatives from more than a dozen local breweries, wineries, distilleries, bars, restaurants, and drinking events – plus staff from the City of Traverse City and Downtown Development Authority – recently gathered at The Little Fleet to discuss their concerns about a rising number of hard-partying customers flooding into local establishments. The problem hits a fever pitch in the summer, owners said, when large groups of bachelor/bachelorette parties and tourists cutting loose on vacation take over area watering holes.

“There are tons of bachelorette groups,” one Old Mission Peninsula winery rep said. “We’ll see 30 of them on a Saturday, with various degrees of responsible drinking. We just want to make sure people are safe and sane when they spend their days up here.”

Owner Gary Jonas of The Little Fleet convened the meeting after experiencing growing frustration with a shift he observed at his normally family-friendly food truck lot and bar on East Front Street. “There is a crowd that’s coming in that’s already been overserved somewhere else, and their only mission is to get drunk,” he tells The Ticker. “The evidence is that they’re ordering these shots that are only good for one thing, and doing it really late at night. We also get these big groups coming in at different times drunk who are impacting the environment we’ve been so careful to create here. People are put off by it, and are leaving.”

Owners reserve the right – and have the legal responsibility – to cut off customers who appear drunk or overserved. They can also ask those customers to leave their establishments. But attendees at The Little Fleet meeting expressed a desire to find a more proactive solution, deterring out-of-control drinking behavior before it begins. To that end, Jonas brought in CEO Jason Ley of Better Drinking Culture (BDC) – a Michigan organization focused on shifting the culture’s “relationship with alcohol in a healthier and more positive direction” – to educate owners on potential steps they can take to mitigate a hard-partying atmosphere.

BDC is not anti-alcohol or tied to any industry, big business, or university, Ley said; instead, his group focuses on helping those who enjoy alcohol to practice moderation and appreciate the craft behind the beverages they drink, always aiming to drink within their “personal limits.” The group also offers a certification program for businesses that follow best practices to support a drinking culture that emphasizes education, craft, and moderation.

“Our culture has glamorized the overconsumption of alcohol without giving fair representation to what happens when we drink to excess,” Ley told meeting attendees. “The message of (celebrating) drinking in moderation, or heaven forbid not drinking at all – that’s the taboo. That’s the shift we’re trying to have an impact on: empowering people to have a healthy relationship with alcohol. Alcohol should be a choice, not an expectation.”

L. Mawby Winery is the first northern Michigan establishment – and the first winery in the state – to receive the BDC certification. Among the steps businesses must follow to earn the designation are instituting a drink maximum policy for customers (typically a 3-4 drink limit) and maintaining employees on-staff who are trained as BDC ambassadors to educate customers on moderation and the BDC approach. BDC is also working on creating an annual benchmark report that will grade drinking establishments throughout the state – as well as universities and cities – on the “health of their drinking culture,” measured by statistics such as liquor license violations, DUIs, alcohol poisoning cases, assaults involving alcohol, and minor in possession (MIP) charges.

BDC’s emphasis on appreciating the craftsmanship behind beer, wine and spirits – celebrating “quality over quantity,” Ley said – resonated with numerous Traverse City brewers, winemakers, and distillers. “I think we’re all offering something of quality,” said Claire Lepine of L. Mawby. “If there can be this shift to promoting the quality experience over the quantity, I think that would really help at a base level. You don’t need to go to seven places, or have eight drinks at one stop. It’s the overconsumption that is the issue. If that perception could be promoted, it’d be a really good starting point.”

Reps from businesses who spoke with The Ticker after the meeting agreed. “The culture of people on vacation in Traverse City, the way they treat alcohol, has changed greatly in the four years since we’ve been open,” says Rare Bird Brewpub Co-Owner Nate Crane. “People always seem to find a way to take it to the next level of being irresponsible. We all have horror stories. People view Traverse City as being like Beale Street or New Orleans, where they’re here to have fun and cut loose and go crazy. So I love to hear the message of, ‘respect the craft.’ So many people do, but for those who don’t, it’s become a problem.”

Crane and other owners at the meeting acknowledged the paradox – and potential hypocrisy – associated with establishments admonishing customers to drink less while simultaneously profiting off the sale of alcohol. But owners were unanimous in their conviction they’d rather lose sales and gain a better environment and clientele than make money on an out-of-control drinking culture. Group members swapped ideas at the meeting for how they could implement BDC's ideas in Traverse City – whether going through the BDC certification process, teaming up to jointly market the city as a responsible drinking community, or tweaking their beverage menus to encourage better decisions.

“We don’t sell Long Island Iced Teas anymore, because it’s an enormous amount of alcohol consumed very quickly,” Jonas explained as an example. “We’ve also eliminated Lemon Drop shots.” Crane mused on the amount of Jameson Irish Whiskey sold at Rare Bird, noting the liquor isn’t offered as part of a particular cocktail and so is almost exclusively ordered as shots. “We make a lot of money off Jameson, but we don’t need to do that,” he said. “We could instead have (customers) drink a cocktail or beer over a half hour. It’s forcing them subconsciously to be more responsible.”

Owners agreed the Little Fleet meeting – and the initial exchange of ideas on how to combat Traverse City’s hard-drinking reputation – was the first step in what will likely be an ongoing process to educate and encourage customers to enjoy local businesses in a manner that is safe and sustainable.

“You don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you, but we are the ones ultimately who are giving people the opportunity to overindulge, so we have to find a balance,” says Crane. “I think there are still many conversations (to be had) on how we try to change people’s perceptions of what Traverse City is – to say ‘come here, have fun, enjoy the breweries, but still be responsible.’”

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