Last month, the Rock Rabbit held a Studio 54 theme night where patrons dressed in their disco wear found the restaurant decorated to mimic the popular ‘70s dance club. As a DJ played disco hits, some decided to dance. Their seemingly innocent activity fueled what some are alleging to be a violation of state law.
According to Wyoming state statute, a restaurant cannot host an organized dance, which the Town Attorney Ed Wood is calling the May 8 event, using pictures published in the Roundup on May 14 as evidence. Last week, Wood sent a formal letter to Dan Abernathy, owner of the Rabbit, notifying him of the violation.
Specifically, the statute states that a restaurant liquor licensee, like the Rabbit, cannot compete with a retail liquor licensee in activities “other than dinner functions, including, but not limited to, dances, receptions and other social gatherings.”
While what exactly constitutes a social gathering remains unclear, Wood said it is clear the Rabbit had a dance.
“When you push the tables back and start dancing…. It was pretty obvious that was a dance,” he said.
Abernathy disputes that claim.
“I did not have a dance nor have I ever promoted a dance here,” he said.
Abernathy said Studio 54 Night was simply a themed night, where some people decided, on their own, to dance. He wonders if he was supposed to tell them to sit down.
“Am I supposed to be the fun police?” he asked.
Abernathy said the letter from the Town originated with the Corral Bar, and specifically bar owner Pat Bozner.
At the May 10 Town Council meeting, Abernathy asked permission for a street closure this summer in order to organize a motorcycle show and bike run that would begin and end near the Rock Rabbit. Bozner was also at the meeting to oppose the event, saying it was a “social gathering” to promote the Rabbit, which went against the same state statute currently in question. The Town Council sided with Abernathy, who said the event was for the benefit of the entire community.
However, Bozner still thinks Dan is breaking the law. She feels the Rock Rabbit is acting as a bar, and not the restaurant it should be, as defined by law. The Rock Rabbit’s events are illegal, and they devalue her retail liquor license, Bozner said.
Bozner has approached the Town on the issue in the past, but more recently made a formal complaint, specifically regarding Studio 54 Night. Wood said he did receive a complaint from the Corral Bar on May 13, which prompted him to look into the matter. Mayor Steve Smith said he was also approached by concerned local bar owners. He did not have any further comments.
Abernathy is also seeking a bar and grill liquor license from the town, which would allow him to have an open bar at the Rock Rabbit. At Abernathy’s request, the Town is in the process of making that license available. Because of Pinedale’s population, only one can be issued.
If the Corral views the possibility of the Rabbit obtaining that license a threat, Abernathy does not understand why. He said the Rabbit is not taking away business from the Corral.
“We don’t have the Corral crowd,” he said.
Bozner agrees the two places, sitting right across Pine Street from one another, are completely different — it’s like comparing “oranges to apples,” she said. While she understands she has to compete with other retail liquor licensees, like Stockman’s, for instance, she said she should not have to include Rock Rabbit in that list.
“I should not have to compete with a restaurant liquor licensee,” said Bozner.
However, Abernethy said the Corral has also tried to rally other local bars against the Rabbit. Steve Pfisterer of Stockman’s did not confirm or deny that allegation.
“As bar owners, we’re trying to get along with each other,” Pfisterer said. However, he added that if Abernathy received the letter from the town, he was probably “pushing the envelope.”
“He still has to work within regulation of his license,” Pfisterer said.
That is also Bozner’s main argument and asserts it is not a personal attack.
“With me, it has nothing to do with Dan and what he does at his business as long as he follows the law,” she said.
Wood said the town council cannot take Rock Rabbit’s liquor license away, but they can refuse to renew it when it expires next March. The Sublette County Attorney’s Office, who could enforce the state law, has not been presented with the issue of Rock Rabbit’s possible violation, said County Attorney Lucky McMahon.
Word of a possible violation would need to come from law enforcement, she said, and then the attorney’s office would research it. If a violation of state statute did occur, the crime is classified as a misdemeanor. A liquor license could also be suspended for a time or the establishment could be placed under probation, McMahon said.
When Rock Rabbit opened three years ago, the goal was to create an informal gathering place for creative interaction — a “home away from home, a cozy and eclectic coffeehouse and bistro” as it says on the restaurant’s menu. Abernathy said he has achieved that “beyond his wildest dreams,” and if he does not have a liquor license in the future, the restaurant will stay open.
“I won’t be bullied,” he said.
At the next Town Council meeting on June 14, Abernathy plans to respond to the letter he received last week. In the meantime, he is speaking to a lawyer on the issue but continuing business as usual at the Rock Rabbit.
“To me it’s very sad that I have to endure the expense of having a lawyer…for doing nothing but trying to create fun for the community,” he said. “That’s all we’re doing, having fun here and people don’t want us to have fun and I don’t understand it.”For the complete article see the 06-04-2010 issue.
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