Tuesday night the public heard discussion and offered comments on the first reading of a city ordinance differentiating, according to Mayor Thompson, what defines a restaurant and what defines a bar. Thompson said, "51 percent of [a business's] sales should be food to be called a restaurant." If 51 percent of a business's sales are alcohol, he said, then it will be classified as a bar, tavern, or night club. Thompson said the ordinance would help control the downtown area and ensure "classier facilities" move in, not alcohol focused businesses. As it is, Milton has areas zoned for alcohol sales like bars and taverns, but the downtown area is not one of those. Thompson said the new ordinance will not affect current businesses since they already report to the state.
Randy Jorgenson, city planning director, said, "If you want to run a restaurant, run a restaurant. If you want to run a bar, run a bar." He said most cities define these terms already; however Milton had not done so before this ordinance. Florida law regulates food and alcohol under various licenses with different conditions. Jorgenson said a Special Restaurant License (SRX) does include a mandated 51 percent of revenue from food and non-alcoholic beverages in order for a business to operate as a restaurant. The license also requires a restaurant occupy 2500 square feet and be equipped to serve 150 customers full course meals, according to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. However, Jorgenson said a 4COP license has no percent of revenue requirements and the state does not check on businesses operating under the license without the SRX designation. Jorgenson gave two scenarios of businesses skirting the law without the proposed city ordinance. He said a business could open downtown as a restaurant while deriving the majority of sales from alcohol, thereby operating as a bar while getting around alcohol sale zoning laws. In a second example, Jorgenson said a business may open as a bar while mainly selling food in order to avoid health department scrutiny. He did say common sense would prevail if a business temporarily fell out of the mandate during unusual times when a business may breech the 51 percent rule, like during a hurricane or other unusual event. Jorgenson said business sales for the entire year would be judged for compliance, not just a few months of high alcohol or food sales.
While the ordinance passed, on its way to a final vote at the April 8 council meeting, Councilman Wesley Meiss kept the ordinance from passing unanimously. Meiss said he does agree businesses should fall under some control and wishes to see Milton remain "family friendly," but he said Florida already monitors restaurants and the citizens of Milton do not need to pay the city money to do what the state is already doing. "Why do tax payers need to fund this?" he asked. Secondly, he said, "This measure would deter business from coming to Milton when the city is trying to attract more.” Meiss said this ordinance is unnecessary and would mean more red tape for new businesses. Cassandra Sharp, local businesswoman, spoke before the council and said Texas Roadhouse could lose its license allowing it to operate as a "family style" restaurant if this new rule passes.
Robert Smith, former councilman from 1972 to 1984 and member of Citizens Against Legalizing Liquor (CALL) said this ordinance "lets us govern ourselves" and would "help to eliminate undesirable business" from coming to downtown Milton. Before the council and public, Smith asked, "Who wants to be like Pensacola?"