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One night in January 2005, D.C. cop David Carter paid a friendly visit to downtown’s Tequila Beach, where, according to a police report, he spied a possible crime in progress. The suspect was described as “a white male sitting at a table with a large ‘X’ on both hands.” His apparent transgression: Taking a swig from a small shot glass.
There are two types of patrons at Tequila Beach: (a) those wearing colorful wristbands labeled “DRINKING AGE VERIFIED” and (b) those whose hands are marked in ink, sometimes with an “X.” Type-(a) personalities are generally allowed to gulp down shots, guzzle beers, and sip cocktails; type-(b)s are not.
Noting the confluence of a marked hand and a jigger of liquid, the officer confronted the suspect, ordering him to show some identification. The man’s ID confirmed Carter’s suspicions: He was just 19 years old. A “field test” on the drink, meanwhile, provided the smoking gun. The bevvie was positive for the presence of alcohol.
While the X-marked clubber admitted that he was the one drinking, according to city liquor-control records, it was the club that ultimately paid the price. For allowing underage consumption on the premises, owner Gary Ouellette agreed this past October to fork over a $2,500 fine.
It’s a risk that many bar operators take when they open their doors to combat-eligible teens. For Tequila Beach, the gamble probably pays off. Over the nine months between Carter’s shot-stopping bust and Ouellette’s measly civil settlement, management reported revenues of more than $400,000. Not too shabby for a business presently mired in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The underagers can take part of the credit. Targeting this liability-laden demographic has become a popular tactic for liquor-slinging nightspots in need of a little economic boost. Few brand-new venues set out to woo high-school seniors and college underclassmen. But eventually, many operators come around. “It tends to happen a year or two down the road when business starts to slow down,” says D.C. promoter John Dulemba, whose outfit, DC Momentum, has worked to advance the cause of 18-and-over parties at Tequila Beach, as well as other formerly age-inflated venues, including 1223, Fur, and Home. “They switch to 18 and over,” he says, “because it broadens their base of people who can come to the club.”
And who can spend money. Sure, folks under 21 aren’t legally allowed to buy or consume alcoholic beverages. But they can still fork over their allowance for other things: cigarettes, bottled water, taurine-infused energy drinks, and, lest we forget, mere entry.
Cover charges can quickly add up. This past September, for instance, Tequila Beach and conjoined club Polly Esther’s, which share the same building, same owner, and same liquor license, raked in more dough at the door than they did at the bar, according to U.S. Bankruptcy Court records. Receipts from entry fees that month totaled $24,702, compared to just $21,859.77 in beverage sales, including $267.27 from nonalcoholic drinks. And during December 2004, the company’s most profitable month since declaring bankruptcy that October, court records show, it was cover charges leading the way, accounting for $52,410 of a reported total income of $94,159.47. Tequila Beach generally charges $10 a head just to get in.
But it would be wrong to gauge the take from underagers solely on these numbers. Youngsters fire up booze sales in ways that only a hardened fratboy understands. The effect is particularly strong when the age divide breaks along gender lines.
“Older guys typically like to look for younger girls,” local 18-and-over party promoter Nick Cambata says. “By guaranteeing girls at a venue, a club can boost its liquor sales considerably because it will guarantee the older guys to come out and attempt to impress these girls.”
Adds former Tequila Beach bartender Moe Harris: “It’s kinda like that Matthew McConaughey line from Dazed and Confused. ‘I get older. They stay the same age.’”
Some clubs, says Cambata, have attempted to encourage a “Can I buy you a drink?” culture by lowering their admission age to 18 for ladies only.
Of course, underage patronage can also have a more direct impact on bar receipts. “It’s an unspoken truth that these clubs will still make money off of the 18-to-21 kids from alcohol sales, because a good percentage of them either have fake [ID]s or have friends that do and can have them purchase the drinks,” says Cambata. “For every bouncer checking people for wristbands to prove their age, there are five kids getting away with it behind the bouncer’s back.”
Sometimes even with the bouncer’s help. Back in November 2004, D.C. police prowling Lulu’s Club Mardi Gras came across two youngish-looking females, each with a drink in her hand. “One of the female patrons was drinking from a clear cup containing beer and the other female was drinking from a 16 oz bottle of Bud Light,” according to a report by the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA). Both women were wearing wristbands indicating they were at least 21. But their IDs said otherwise: “UNDER 21,” they stated, according to the report, “in red bold ink.”
How’d they finagle those age-defying wristbands? They’re college-aged females. Even armed with a high-tech ID scanner, a Lulu’s employee working the door—who later admitted to investigators that “he knew that the patrons were under 21 years old because he checked their identification”—was no match for the co-eds’ powers of persuasion. “The patrons demanded to enter the establishment and celebrate their friend’s birthday,” manager Alan Chadsey told an ABRA investigator, according to the report. With the punch of a few buttons, the Lulu’s staffer proceeded to override the sophisticated age-verification system and print out two all-access wristbands for the young ladies. The women then proceeded to purchase drinks from the bar.
At Tequila Beach, ex-suds-slinger Harris says he had to fend off similarly determined underagers all the time. But the struggle was often pointless, he says. “From the moment they come in, it’s pretty much like ‘Gimme a drink. Gimme a drink.’ You’re like, ‘Nah.’ But they wind up drinkin’ anyway, whether it’ll be from another bartender or just some dude who gives ’em a drink.”
Of course, not everyone who fits the 18-and-over profile, though, imbibes illicitly. At least not so openly. At Tequila Beach on Dec. 29, ink-marked 19-year-old Tara could obtain only a clear plastic cup of what she describes as “boring ol’ H2O,” which she sipped from a straw while looking out at the dance floor at around 1:30 a.m. Then again, Tara was no designated driver: She pointed out to S&T that she’d had a few prior to arriving.—Chris Shott
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