Concerns about pricing stem from over-licensing
By Paul Andrew
Although a program set up some years ago by the Resort Municipality of Whistler was intended to stop the annual price wars in Whistler Village pubs and clubs, the problem persists.
Whether it’s a combination of almost 30,000 licensed seats in Whistler or the growth of a young demographic, Staff Sergeant Frank Shedden of the Whistler RCMP says if a specific bar is slashing its prices, sooner or later they will get a visit from the RCMP.
"That tells me they want extra attention," Shedden said. "So if that’s the case we’ll issue them a ticket and they will have to go to a hearing at the Liquor Control Licence Branch. They set all the rules, we just enforce the rules on their behalf. If you’re selling beer below cost it’s against the law."
So what is below cost? Who’s to say that $2.50 is not the going rate for a glass of beer? And why are some bars lowering prices while other are not?
The standard price of a glass of beer in Whistler is $4.75, and that could be a sleeve or a pint, depending on the pub or club. The cost is determined from the initial price of $1.27 for a bottle of beer and 20 cents for an ounce of draft, both prices set by the Liquor Control Branch. If you sell a bottle of beer or a "pint" of beer below $3.20, it is considered under cost.
The reasons some pubs and clubs do not reduce beer prices are ambience, which they feel can be maintained through a standard, consistent beer price, or in the case of at least two bars, The Patron Disbursement Program. It’s also difficult to pay staff when the price of a beer is below retail.
"I believe it was five years a go when (the disbursement) program started," Shedden said. "Those establishments that were involved would get an extra half-hour at the end of the night to let their patrons finish their drinks and disburse in a more orderly fashion. In exchange they wouldn’t create price wars. On the other hand, we can’t enforce the program."
The Disbursement Program is in effect a "gentlemen’s agreement" not to cause a stir in the village by drastically lowering prices on liquor or beer. But the recent trend to play hip hop music in almost all the clubs has, for the moment, changed the atmosphere in the village. Shedden says one of the recommendations in the provincial Surich report, which analysed the manner in which liquor licenses were granted and recommended ways to simplify licenses, was that programs such as the one in Whistler be available province wide, at the discretion of each municipality.
The problem in Whistler is some bars abide by the program and some do not. Others elect not to get involved in price wars for their own reasons.
"There is no simple sense to the Liquor Licensing Act and there is no simple sense to the way bars operate in Whistler," Shedden said. "The problem is they know the rules when they apply for the licence but they don’t play by those rules after they get it."
Dale Schweighardt, who manages Buffalo Bill’s Bar & Grill and is the president of the Whistler Food and Beverage Association, says there is a crude logic to the way clubs and pubs operate in a resort such as Whistler during the slower periods.
"Every year we get someone who will lower their prices in order to establish a crowd for the high season," he explained. "This time it was Big Wood’s Restaurant with their hip hop nights on Wednesdays. The Crab Shack inherited that night because Big Wood’s closed for shoulder season and for a few weeks the price for a beer in there was quite low. Joe Kovacs approached me about that and I had to raise my eyebrows a little at that. But I think now they have established that night so the prices will come back up to a more reasonable level."
Schweighardt said the combination of cheap beer and hip hop music is a combustible one, because of the younger patrons who typically have less disposable income and are prone to rowdy behaviour after consuming several glasses of cheaper beer. He says that’s partly why some clubs will keep the price of beer at $4.75: it eliminates mass over consumption and maintains a more respectable atmosphere.
"Put it this way; you won’t have a young hip hop fan puking on his shoes right next to you if you keep the price of beer at $4.75," he said.
Schweighardt said prices should level off soon, but in the meantime, the municipal Liquor License Advisory Committee has much work ahead of it.
"Those guys have to go though huge bible-like books to review what’s already happened in Whistler. They’re coming into it three-quarters of the way through. They have to determine if we’re over licensed," Schweighardt said. "Who’s to say we’re over-licensed?"