Rocktown Grill and the 45 percent rule

Brent Finnegan -- September 10th, 2007

There’s a story in today’s Breeze about Rocktown Grill (formerly known as Highlawn Pavilion, previously Blue Fox) charging $5 food tickets to get in the door on Thursday nights. It’s basically a cover, but patrons can redeem the $5 ticket for food. Apparently, Rocktown isn’t selling enough food, and in Virginia there’s no such thing as a real bar. This is known as the 45 percent rule, where food and nonalcoholic beverages must account for at least 45 percent of total gross sales, or you get fined, or eventually risk losing your liquor license.

But according to an article published in Brick earlier this year, ABC may not be watching the food sales as closely as they used to:

ABC’s strategy seems less combative now. The agency prefers leveraging fines to staging dramatic invasions, as long as “bars” attempt to follow the rules.

The shift in tactics doesn’t necessarily mean the agency’s gone soft. The kindler, gentler makeover is more likely due to a staffing shortage.

“ABC used to go so far as to audit receipts for food vendors to make sure they’re above the limit, but they no longer have the manpower to do that.”

So, this all may be much ado about nothing.

45 percent or not, none of this addresses the issue of driving somewhere to get drunk, as opposed to walking. Judging from The Breeze article, it’s pretty clear that most of the students that frequent Rocktown aren’t there for the food. When asked about the food ticket/cover charge, one girl was quoted as saying, “That’s like one more drink I could have gotten.”

Most of the bars on the east end of town have been built away from residential areas — a trend allowed and encouraged by zoning it that way. The only way to get to Rocktown is to drive or have a cab drop you off. It’s doubtful any patrons walk. I’d be interested to know what percentage of those Rocktown patrons is actually designating sober drivers or calling cabs, and what percentage is just driving drunk to their apartment halfway across the city.

The 45 percent rule: neo-Prohibitionist and outdated, or prudent and necessary?

17 Responses to “Rocktown Grill and the 45 percent rule”

  1. Justin says:

    If you can’t have a bar in Harrisonburg, why keep trying. The atmosphere that is dictated in that place is obviously meant to entice drinkers and dancers. Why not just start dance music later at night or close earlier. A $5 food ticket would turn me away from the door.

    To me the place is begging to be shut down. He even said himself, “We don’t want to change…”

    You work in Virginia buddy. Your stuck. Charging a $5 food ticket is lame, even by college standards.

    Obviously, Virginia’s laws are dumb. If other states have bars, why should we be any different. It’s definetly outdated. But it’s still the law.

    Why not use your patronage to start a 45% law petition or something useful.

  2. kai says:

    I lived in Sunchase for four years and walked back and forth from there. That complex and Stonegate are the only only practical for walking, though.

    The Pub has the same transportation problems.

  3. finnegan says:

    Then again, it doesn’t seem to matter if you walk home from any bar, leaving your car behind you: people I know are still getting DIP citations from the HPD for doing the responsible thing and walking home.

    Whatever happened to that FAR initiative that was hyped several months back? I remember requesting the FAR people set up some sort of forum for bar patrons and HPD to discuss the issue of DIPs, but I never heard back on that. I need to send out some emails and post a follow-up to that.

  4. Tim says:

    The food percentage thing is an out dated law that, in my opinion, was put in place as a way to stop new bars from opening and to close existing ones. Recently, however, as local governments look around at their peers that are thriving they seem to be realizing that a healthy “bar” scene is one of the things that people look at when deciding where to live (or in the case of H-burg’s mid20somethingflight, where to stay put).

    The article seems to suggest that ABC needs more funding because he 45% food sales law is not being enforced but I have a hunch that the state is just letting the law age out of relevance instead going through the trouble of overturning it. I agree with that route. A place that only serves alcohol, where people can socialize, can be policed for ABC violates just as easily as a place that serves lunch during the day, to meet a quota, and then serves alcohol while people socialize till 2 am. It isn’t like a person can’t get wasted at the bar at Ruby Tuesdays with out eating a bite of food, and the state gets their tax money either way.

    As far as the DIP issue goes I have trouble finding a more frustrating thing to reconcile in my mind than Hburg’s DIP enforcement. Just when people, in general, are convinced to leave their car’s at home if they are going out drinking, hpd arrests them for walking home. The mixed message makes me so angry. Logic suggests that people will start driving more, since they would have less exposer time to the police, who will arrest them either way if they are found. The effects of more drunk people driving would be fatal (we know that since MADD and others have spent the last 50 years proving how fatal it is). Are the HPD just bored? If so they can listen in on my phone conversations (in reality though, they’d still be bored).

    Finn, some follow up on the FAR people would be great.

  5. John says:

    I find it hard to believe that the HPD is ‘stopping’ walkers on their way home from bars (I assume late at night) on the assumption that they must be drunk. More likely, they are screaming and yelling, or drawing attention to themselves in some way (in other words, acting drunk).

    Just as police generally don’t randomly pull drivers over late at night on the assumption that they must be drunk, I’ve gotta think that the same holds true for walkers. There needs to be an infraction of some sort. Cops have better things to do, I’m sure.

    I lived downtown for a while and I can tell you that mixed in with all of the students are some crotchety old folks — hopefully I’m not one of those yet — that have nothing better to do that call the cops because they saw and heard a group of students walking or stumbling by their house that woke up the whole neighborhood. As often as I was woken up by the trains, I was woken up by drunks.

  6. finnegan says:

    Actually, John, I know it does happen. If a cop sees someone staggering or “walking drunk” they’ll get them. I’ve made the point on this blog before that there is no need for a DIP charge.

    If the person is being drunk and loud, get them for disturbing the peace. If a person is drunk and urinating in public, get them for indecent exposure. If a person is drunk and damaging someone’s property, get them for destruction of property. There are other charges on the books for any objectionable behavior associated with drunkenness, and therefore, there’s no real need for DIP charges.

    To ticket someone for simply being drunk seems utterly Puritanical to me. Not to mention hypocritical if you know any cops who are also occasional partygoers.

  7. Bell says:

    The food sales problem at that place are nothing new. When it used to be Highlawn they would have a free buffet with wings and all kinds of other stuff on Fridays so they could write that off towards their food percentage, even though they weren’t charging anything for it.

    I honestly think that building is cursed, as far a restaurant/bars go, just like the building that now has University Outpost. Nothing has been able to survive there for more than 4 or 5 years.

  8. John says:

    I still find it hard to believe that this is happening on a regular basis in the way it is being portrayed. I have walked home drunk many times from downtown bars and never had a problem – never even been looked at twice by the police. Granted that I am in my 30’s, but I don’t have grey hair or anything.

    Maybe we have a different definition of drunk. I guess the state says .08 is drunk? When I am .08, I can walk without stumbling or staggering. And yes, many times I am better than .08 when I walk home – and still manage not to be falling over myself. I am not ‘hobo-drunk.’

    If someone is truly stumbling or staggering, maybe it isn’t such a bad idea to get them off the street as they may be a danger to themselves.

    Since this is also a thread that started with the 45 percent thing about bars and restaurants, it begs the question of ‘how are they getting so drunk in these bars and restaurants so as to stumble or stagger?’ Aren’t the bartenders supposed to cut people off that are obviously inebriated?

    Disclaimer — I am definitely not a police booster in any way. I have had a few run-ins in my younger days. Maybe in my old age I have come to appreciate what the police do, and can see that sometimes it is for our own good.

  9. Marcus says:

    I only visited a few times as a student, but I think Highlawn always charged a $5 cover charge? If you can exchange your cover for food I’d say retarded or not that’s a win, not a loss for customers.

    I think as far as cops pestering walkers I believe location is key. I was approached by cops while a JMU student when walking home late at night from school/work. Then I lived toward the primarily student apartments (commons, ashby, etc). I was stone sober and definitely not stumbling. They seemed to just be fishing to see what I was up to walking home later at night. I have heard that from other students that live in those homes when they walk alone. It is probably completely random, but I know that it does happen.I was not bothered nor seen or heard of anyone bothered when I lives on S. Main or since I’ve been
    living closer to downtown.

    I’m curious what the statistics on people getting hit while walking home in the evening / at night are for the area over the last 10 years? See if there is an argument for dangers of walking home drunk from bars…

  10. Marty says:

    I was walking home drunk from Sunchase to Greek Row back in college and a cop stopped and gave me a ride. Lucky me.

    Yeah, $5 food cover? Whatever, you do what you gotta do.

  11. David Miller says:


    That kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore. It is officially illegal to be intoxicated (above one beers worth) anywhere but in a dark quiet room at home, alone.

  12. Tim says:

    John, your disbelief stems from the absurdness of Hpd’s actions while dealing with people who have been drinking then walk home. I have a friend who is a school teacher (not a college kid) who got stopped 2 blocks from his house while walking home and arrested for dip. He wasn’t stumbling or yelling, he just cut a corner through a parking lot instead of following the sidewalk all the way around. Although hpd is supposed to have a reason for stopping you, my friends example shows how they will always find one if they want one. Once a person is stopped they ask if you’ve been drinking and a yes answer is a slippery slope to jail. If you’ve had a drink and respond truthfully the cop can now give you a breathalyser, and what I’ve been told is that it is illegal to be in public with any amount of alcohol in your system. If you refuse the breathalyser it is automatically assumed that you’re guilty and you end up in jail. I don’t believe that any officer is unreasonable enough to send a citizen to jail for DIP if they blow under .08 but, as it’s been pointed out, most people are more than fine to walk with a BAC above .08 and there is no limit on how drunk a VA resident is allowed to be in private. So a citizen who has been drinking is only breaking the law while changing destinations. Though there are many ways of changing destinations walking is the safest option for most people going a short distance and DIP laws don’t encourage people to take this option. What the laws do accomplish is generating 90 bucks a pop for the city and allowing the police to feel useful on an other wise quiet night. (Anybody from a big city is shocked by this law and will immediately tell you that their police have more important things to do.)

  13. Frank J Witt says:

    $90 ! Holy crap !

    I thought it might just be 25 or 30 dollar fine. I walked home last summer from Highlawn and did get stopped 4 times crossing JMU but never got a ticket. Just was asked all 4 times where I was going and when I go to the gate on Port, they left me alone.

    Thanks for the info.

  14. Mark Batten says:

    Congratulations Rocktown on your first stabbing!
    Hope nobody gets killed at the upcoming Big Brothers Big Sisters benefit.
    P.S. The police feel it wasn’t a big fight because nobody who works there called them? Of course nobody called them. Why would they report a wasted customer involved in a parking lot brawl?

  15. David Troyer says:

    Mark… where does the Police Department make statements about their feeling of how “big” the fight was? If I was Rocktown, I would call the police right away in hopes to keep at least some sense of responsibility with the HPD…

    Anyhow, I feel The Artful Dodger does a great job of good food by day, good times by night. The only times my food has been lackluster were some times late at night, otherwise very good stuff… and they have a buy one get one free coupon on golookon…

  16. David Miller says:

    This is why I stay downtown. I’m sure those other venues in suburbian Harrisonburg are great, but downtown is really where it’s at!

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