State College Borough Council OKs Liquor License Transfer For Downtown Sports Bar And Grill
The State College Borough Council voted 5-1 on Monday to approve a liquor license transfer for a new downtown sports bar and restaurant — without any conditions for a food-to-alcohol sales ratio or restrictions on alcoholic beverage sizes and happy hours, as had been originally proposed.
Council member Peter Marshall voted no, and Divine Lipscomb was absent.
Brothers Bar & Grill, which operates 19 locations in 10 states, including several Big Ten towns, plans to open at 134 S. Allen St. The building was most recently home to an Amazon pick-up store that closed in 2022.
The Wisconsin-based company owned by brothers Marc and Eric Fortney has a deal to acquire the restaurant liquor license held by Fuji & Jade Garden for its former location at 418 Westerly Parkway. Fuji & Jade did not seek to transfer the license when it moved in 2019 to the Northland Center in Ferguson Township.
Fuji & Jade’s license was transferred into the borough in 2006 from the Hummingbird Room in Spring Mills, and Pennsylvania’s Liquor Code requires the receiving municipality’s approval when it has more than one liquor license per 3,000 population. It also allows the municipality to place conditions on the license, and Fuji & Jade’s license required council approval for a transfer to another party or location.
While Fuji & Jade’s license had a requirement that at least 80% of its revenue come from food sales borough staff proposed a new conditional agreement for Brothers that would require at least 60% of revenue to be from food sales for each two-year licensing cycle. In a presentation to council during a public hearing on Jan. 9, Police Chief John Gardner gave an overview of alcohol-related crime in the borough and the increased police responses that accompany restaurants that serve alcohol and bars as compared to restaurants only as the reason for including the ratio and other conditions.
The Fortneys, who noted they were paying about $500,000 for the liquor license, said in January they likely would not be able to open the State College location if such a restriction were imposed. They also detailed their safety policies and training and certification procedures for their staff, saying they have not had issues at other locations. Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said he spoke with administrators in other towns where Brothers operates and received positive feedback about the business.
“We never asked to purchase a license with a restriction because we know it’s very, very difficult to meet that restriction,” Marc Fortney said. “A cheeseburger basket is $10 and today’s craft beers are $8. If someone’s there for a couple hours watching a game at a sports bar… we want them to squat, we want them to stay and be part of the environment, enjoy the Rose Bowl victory. But you can’t stay there over an hour and have more than one beer because we would be over the limit.
“It’s very difficult. We’re not going to stand up here and say we can do that because we won’t. We won’t be able to do that.”
Instead, the resolution approved by council on Monday includes a condition, proposed by the owners, for a “food stipulation.” Brothers will agree that the size and scope of its menu will not change, essentially ensuring that the establishment will not transform into a nighttime bar geared only toward college students.
“Six months from now, two years from now, if the council is gracious enough to give us our approval, you won’t see us standing here opening three days a week on Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights at 9 p.m. and there’s 10 items on the food menu,” Eric Fortney said in January.
Brothers’ daily operations are comprised of lunch, happy hour, dinner, and late night. It’s a family-friendly environment with a large menu, Marc Fortney said, though after 9 p.m. it is limited to 21 and older unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. The full menu is served until 10 p.m. and a late-night menu of appetizers is served until close.
The restaurant expects to have table and booth seating for 232 and 35 seats at the bar, with anticipated hours of 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily and meal prices in the range of $12 to $20.
The resolution also did not include another condition originally proposed by staff would have limited alcohol sales by the drink to a container that does not exceed 22 fluid ounces. The Fortneys said it was unclear if they could even serve pitchers of beer under that provision.
Other proposed conditions not included in the final resolution included a prohibition on alcohol discounts and advertising of alcohol sales.
Council did approve conditions that alcohol sales will not be permitted when food sales are not available and that no smoking will be permitted anywhere on the premises, both of which the Fortneys said they already planned.
The license cannot be expanded beyond the premises or transferred to a third party or another location without council’s approval.
Before voting no, Marshall said he preferred going with borough staff’s original recommendations for conditions.
“The question is do we need another bar and restaurant in the downtown, another long line of students waiting to drink, another business that requires added police intervention to keep people safe,” Marshall said. “Based on the balance between filling the space and permitting another bar to be established, I’d say yes with conditions. And the conditions that I like are the conditions that were proposed by the staff after having spent considerable time determining what was appropriate for downtown and what would be positive.”
Council President Jesse Barlow, however, called the approved conditions a “reasonable compromise,” and council member Gopal Balachandran said he felt it would be unfair to impose a food-to-alcohol ratio on Brothers.
The Fuji & Jade license was the last transferred license remaining in the borough to have the ratio condition, and the last time council approved a transfer — in 2019 for the Queenstown restaurant that never opened at the corner of South Pugh Street and East College Avenue— it did not include the ratio among the conditions.
“I certainly appreciate Mr. Marshall’s comment, and I know that under the law we could make and impose those conditions on Brothers,” Balachandran said. “However, to my mind, I think what is legally available is different than what I think is fair to businesses and in the community… If we are going to be treating certain businesses a certain type of way and have a certain type of license that does not have that particular ratio then I don’t believe that Brothers ought to be subjected and burdened with that same kind of ratio…”
He added that college students likely will still be lining up somewhere to drink alcohol whether or not Brothers opens downtown and that the restaurant “looks to me like a really nice establishment that will appeal to a broad range of the State College population, not just a student population.”
Marshall, who said “95% of staff recommendations are approved by council” also took issue with how the recommended conditions changed from what was originally presented to council in January. He said that after the public hearing, he received an email from borough staff asking for his preference among three options and assumed the revised conditions were the result of how the majority voted.
“If that’s true and that’s what we’re doing now, we can handle all of our problems that way,” he said. “Staff could just ask council what they want and base their recommendation on what the majority of council wants. I don’t think that’s the way things should be done. I think that staff should do their homework and they should make recommendations based on the facts… and I question whether that was done this time.”
Balachandran and council member Deanna Behring both, politely, pushed back against the notion that there was a problem with the process or that council should not be able to make decisions that are not entirely consistent with what borough staff proposes.
“I think the process does work. I think allowing council time to lead and make decisions with the time to go deeper and learn more than just what is presented to us is a really important piece of the process,” Behring said. “Because I know I learned a lot that makes me comfortable with this current resolution proposal.”
The proposed date of the liquor license relocation is August 2023. The Fortneys said last month that they are planning a substantial build-out inside the Allen Street property, adding that they take pride in the “fit and finish” of their establishments. Eric Fortney said that though the location does not lend itself to outdoor seating, they expect to convert to operable storefront windows that will allow for open-air seating inside.
Brothers’ State College location is expected to have about 100 part-time employees, along with full-time staff including a general manager, kitchen manager and two assistant managers.
Jonathan Friedman, whose family’s real estate business owns the building, said he believes Brothers will add value to the downtown community while filling a commercial vacancy — something the borough has sought to address in recent years with the proliferation of new space brought in with high-rise construction.
“Inside our own internal structure of what we see strategically for the downtown and what we think will add vitality and energy to the community, the brothers represent the best opportunity for this space that we have come across in the over a year we’ve had to lease the space,” Friedman said.
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