A client holding a retail liquor license recently reported to our office a difficult exchange with a State Liquor Authority (SLA) investigator visiting its establishment. The investigator raised a potential violation over inconsistent “open hours” described on various websites. The investigator had visited various websites that featured information about the business and its operating hours. He asserted that the licensee was operating outside its approved Method of Operation–a violation that could receive penalties of up to $3,000. As one example, the investigator cited the difference between the business’ hours it listed in Facebook and on its website, and those posted on Yelp. They were not the same, and the hours posted on Yelp were not consistent with those in the approved Method of Operation.
It was quickly apparent to the business owner that the investigator did not understand how organizations like Yelp operate and maintain their websites and apps. The investigator erroneously believed that the business posted its operating hours on Yelp. The investigator did not know that Yelp creates its own “free/basic” listings for businesses. If a business wants Yelp to customize the initial listing (even to include basic accurate information and correct errors), it has to pay a fee. This fee is not small, rather it involves a multi-year contract amounting to many thousands of dollars.
Incorrect information available on websites like Yelp is problematic with regard to customer satisfaction as well. There is nothing worse for a customer than reading online that an establishment is “open ‘til 11 pm” only to arrive at 10:30 pm to find the restaurant, bar, or pub closed. The customer feels cheated even though it is not the establishment’s fault. Such a situation might even result in some bad online reviews by the customer.
Taking 30 minutes each quarter to review a business’ online presence can minimize the risks of unnecessary penalties and violations by the SLA, can ensure the correct information reaches your customers, and avoids customer frustration. In this case, the business owner was able to explain the situation to the investigator, and will hopefully avoid any expensive disciplinary charges.
However, not all licensees can advocate as strongly for their own interests. Not all licensees are familiar with how third-party services work. Not all licensees are knowledgeable about the state regulatory requirements. Not all licensees speak English fluently. Despite being at a disadvantage due to such issues, many licensees try to be cooperative with the SLA and unknowingly sign statements prepared by the SLA investigators that harm the licensee’s interests. The statements often essentially operate to admit to violations that may not actually have occurred.
The take-away here is that it is important to regularly check your online presence on major websites and mobile apps. Be sure incorrect information is corrected and updated. If you find yourself in a disciplinary matter with the SLA, give our team a call. Professional legal guidance can be a valuable asset in situations like this. Don’t risk your liquor license and the revenues it brings your business.