Growing number of Five Points bars face “food fight” in court, facing loss of liquor licenses

Published: Jun. 26, 2019 at 11:44 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Within the last year, four bars in the Five Points district have shut down or are in the process of doing so, as part of a Columbia attorney’s efforts to shut down bars violating the law.

Cover 3, Roost, Horseshoe and Saloon have fallen victim to Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian and subsequent litigation brought against them. A fifth bar, Group Therapy, is expected to close this fall, according to Harpootlian.

He’s challenging the renewal of liquor licenses of bars in 5 points, which he claims are in violation of state law because they do not offer a “substantial” amount of food. In 1979, the state supreme court ruled against a bowling alley looking to obtain a liquor license, after it revealed 10 percent of its revenue came from food.

“The supreme court ruled 10 percent is not enough,” Harpootlian said. “Somewhere we’ve lost our way between then and now because the Department of Revenue, the reason we got involved, was because it would not challenge a license based on how much food was being sold.”

Harpootlian said there is no such thing as a bar serving liquor by the drink under the state constitution. Instead, the sale of liquor by the drink must be sold by an establishment classified as a hotel or restaurant that’s food options is “primary and substantial.”

He said the Five Points district has changed substantially over the last several decades, seeing a larger shift in the increase of bars over the last 10 years.

“Forty years ago there were 10,000 students at USC, there may have been a bar, it was commercial, drug stores, maybe a bar or two but not what we have today,” he said. “People would walk down with their kids, feel comfortable day or night and what’s happened is the university has grown four or fivefold and the legitimate day time businesses have been run out by bars that can pay multiples in rent.”

Harpootlian and attorney Chris Kenney are representing a group of residents who live in nearby neighborhoods, who initially complained a couple of years ago about drunk college students leaving Five Points bars and causing property damage to their homes and yards, stumbling back to campus and trekking onto their properties.

Many of those residents say over the last two years, they’ve seen a decrease in activity, which ranged from cars being sideswiped, landscaping being trampled and public urination in flower beds. They credit the shift to the decreasing number of bars that remain open in Five Points, thanks to Harpootlian’s efforts.

“What’s happened is you have these kids coming and going, drunk, throwing up, falling…I mean the stories,” Harpootlian said. “This is in the middle of a residential area, I understand there are some people that like that atmosphere—take it somewhere else—go to Myrtle Beach. It’s just ludicrous; this isn’t an alcoholic romper room.”

Harpootlian and Kenney said many of the bars in Five Points cater to underage drinking because it is lucrative.

“Clearly these college bars in Five Points know their clientele is USC students and primarily underage students,” Kenney, who led litigation against Cover 3, said. “Their drink prices, $1 or $2 liquor drinks, that type of pricing scheme is meant to attract a certain type of client and it’s a college kid that can’t afford a $6 liquor drink.”

According to Kenney, through depositions, it was learned food makes up .6 percent of its total revenue. After one day of litigation, owners agreed to withdraw their request for renewal and will close sometime in August.

Those who frequent the Five Points area agree some of the bars don’t offer much in the way of food.

“A lot of places that serve food, serve good food, but then there’s places that get by having corndogs and hot pockets on their menu—they’re not really serving food—they’re serving booze,” one person said.

We reached out to the Five Points Association for a statement to learn more about how it plans to keep and attract new businesses to the area given the ongoing threat of litigation:

“The Five Points Association expects compliance of all laws and regulations, by all businesses. With 16 plus projects in queue, the My 5 Points initiative is working to improve all facets of the village to attract new businesses. Starting with a focus on Harden Street, we are diligently working toward a Complete Streets model with Saluda Ave as a blueprint for the safe, walk-able, livable neighborhood we strive for.”

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