The D.C. Office of Weights and Measures normally sticks to duties like making sure you get a full gallon of gas at the pump and ensuring grocery store scales are calibrated correctly. A few weeks ago, however, the office decided to take on a more arcane issue: the underpouring of alcohol. But in their attempt to educate bars and restaurants about the District’s laws, investigators gave out false information about minimum alcohol pours, ultimately creating even more confusion.
Two pairs of investigators from the Office of Weights and Measures—-which is part of the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs—-visited about 10 bars and restaurants on the H Street NE corridor on Feb. 9 and used beakers to measure pours of beer, wine, and hard liquor.
The investigators told business owners and managers that they cannot serve alcoholic beverage portions smaller than the minimums set by the District. The officials also handed out a five-page pamphlet that stated the District requires a five-ounce pour “for all glasses of wine.” The pamphlet included a graphic with a 12-ounce glass of beer, five-ounce glass of wine, and 1.5-ounce glass of hard liquor, suggesting that these are the required minimum pours for different kinds of drinks. The pamphlet also says D.C. requires all restaurants and bars selling alcohol to label the sizes of their drinks in ounces on their menus. If they don’t meet minimum pour standards, the investigators told restaurant and bar staff, the businesses could be subject to $2,000 fines in the future.
None of that’s true, it turns out. D.C. law does not require a minimum pour for alcohol. The law only requires that businesses provide what they advertise. So, if a restaurant’s menu specifies that it offers five ounces of wine, it must legally serve five ounces of wine. But it is not required to label the ounces in a drink, and the D.C. code doesn’t define how many ounces are in a “glass.”
“I know that the pamphlet that was given out has some provisions that were not accurate, and we’re looking into why that happened,” says DCRA spokesman Helder Gil.
It’s still unclear how the four-person staff of the Office of Weights and Measures got the incorrect information—-or how their pamphlet was approved for distribution. A large photo of DCRA Director Nick Majett appears on the front of the info packet given to bars and restaurants, along with a letter addressed from him. But a statement that DCRA emailed to Y&H this morning says, “Director Majett relied on his staff when they proposed the initiative. Once he became aware that the initiative was causing confusion among bar/restaurant owners, he suspended the initiative until it is thoroughly reviewed so as to effectively communicate the correct legal requirements to bar/restaurant owners.”
Gil says the inspections were in response to an uptick in consumer complaints about alcohol portions, and the visits were intended to be “educational.” Instead, the investigators left restaurant staff and owners misinformed and confused about their legal requirements. A Washington Post story, which first brought the inspections to public light, only created more confusion by failing to lay out the specifics of the law and strongly insinuating that the city required minimum pours.
Among the establishments visited by Office of Weights and Measure investigators were Boundary Road, Granville Moore’s, TruOrleans, The Big Board, and Smith Commons. The bars were chosen at random, not because they were the subject of complaints, Gil says. Many, if not most, of the establishments investigated don’t even list ounces on their drink menus.
“My reaction is basically, what the fuck?” says The Big Board chef and manager Andrew Gregory, who poured drinks for investigators. “I was very perplexed by the whole thing.” Gregory says the investigators ordered “normal pours” of the cheapest beer, wine, and rail liquor available and paid in cash. (They did not drink.) He also says they measured the drinks in beakers with rims the size of Coke bottles and didn’t have funnels to prevent liquid from spilling.
Initially, Gil says, the plan was to start on H Street NE, which was targeted because of its high volume of bars, and then move on to investigations in other neighborhoods. That won’t be happening, at least for now. DCRA is currently determining how to best proceed with getting bar and restaurant owners the correct information. “We’re not going to be using that pamphlet going forward,” Gil says. “And it’s going to be very thoroughly vetted.”