Lawsuit: LCB playing favorites with a Garces restaurant

From left, Gina Cusano and Lisa Dombroski, both of Philadelphia, and Dani Leiman of Narberth shop in the boutique wine shop at Garces Trading Company on Locust Street. A lawsuit, filed by competitors, says the singular arrangement is favoritism by the LCB.
From left, Gina Cusano and Lisa Dombroski, both of Philadelphia, and Dani Leiman of Narberth shop in the boutique wine shop at Garces Trading Company on Locust Street. A lawsuit, filed by competitors, says the singular arrangement is favoritism by the LCB.
Posted: June 26, 2010

A group of Center City bar and restaurant owners has sued the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, seeking an end to the state's only wine boutique, inside Garces Trading Company, a restaurant-cafe at 1111 Locust St.

The Washington Square West Civic Association and State Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.) are backing the suit, filed Wednesday in Common Pleas Court. It accuses the LCB of creating a cozy relationship with one private business at the expense of others.

An LCB spokeswoman said the board would not comment Friday because it had not been served with the complaint. The LCB said the wine boutique, initially a test site, had proved so successful that "several new sites" are being considered, but none in the foreseeable future.

Garces Trading, set up like an old-fashioned European-style market inside the Western Union Building, opened in February. It is owned by chef Jose Garces, who is not named in the suit, and sells cheeses, meats, breads, coffee, oils, and prepared foods for takeout or table service.

As such, Garces Trading is just another of the city's vaunted BYOB establishments - except that under the unprecedented arrangement, there's a State Store next to the dining area. About 200 wines, behind a glass partition, are sold at retail. Patrons can tote bottles to their tables and Garces employees may pour them. Should a patron buy a wine from the shop at room temperature, a Garces employee may swap it for a chilled bottle from a fridge.

The setup seems like a diner's dream. There's no need to find an open State Store, and a bottle of wine at the boutique can cost less than a glass of wine poured elsewhere.

But to the Coalition of Restaurant Owners for Liquor Control Fairness, as the plaintiffs call themselves, it's fraught with problems.

The bar owners object because they must buy a license and carry liquor liability insurance, while a BYOB like Garces Trading does not. The BYOB owners among the coalition think that Garces Trading has been given an unfair advantage, starting with the selection of the restaurateur.

Chef Garces is not the target of this legal maneuver, emphasized Judith Applebaum, president of the civic association and a Garces customer. "The [LCB] did this without process and there wasn't open competition [for the arrangement]. They were less than candid from the start." A requested meeting between the LCB and the Washington Square West Civic Association was held after the State Store's license was approved, she said.

David L. Kwass - the lawyer representing the plaintiffs and a partner in Tria, a wine bar two blocks from Garces Trading - said he believed the liquor code was being violated because wines are being consumed on a State Store's premises.

The coalition includes BYOB owners Jon Myerow (Kwass' partner at Tria), Valerie Safran (Bindi, Lolita), and Mary Ann Ferrie and Dan Grimes (Chloe); restaurant/bar owners Georges Perrier (Le Bec-Fin), Fergie Carey (Fergie's), Olivier de St. Martin (Zinc, Caribou Cafe), Jill Weber (the forthcoming Jet Wine Bar), and Jason Evenchik (Vintage, Time, Bar); and George Anni, who owns both a BYOB (Mercado) and bars (Valanni, Varga Bar).

Garces Trading is the latest in Garces' empire of eateries, including Amada, Tinto, Distrito, Chifa, and Village Whiskey. They, as well as the forthcoming JG Domestic, all have liquor licenses.

Garces' spokeswoman said he was unavailable for comment.

The wine boutique is an outgrowth of the LCB's recent move to more aggressive marketing. The Wegmans market in Collegeville (and soon in Malvern) and the Whole Foods store in Plymouth Meeting are licensed to sell wine and beer on tap, as well as six-packs to go. This week, the agency began testing self-service wine kiosks in two supermarkets.


Contact staff writer Michael Klein at mklein@phillynews.com. Follow his blog at http://go.philly.com/insider and on Twitter @phillyinsider.

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