SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

August 29, 2013

Two eateries caught in underage drinking sting

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — Enforcing the law can be tough on the enforcers.

A June 21 police sting will take a three-day bite out of Champion’s Pub on Foster Street after an employee was caught selling a Bud Light to an underage woman. It wasn’t the first lapse for Champion’s, which had a one-day suspension held in abeyance in 2011.

Nordstom’s Cafe Bistro fared a little better before the city’s Licensing Board on Monday, after getting caught up in the same sting. A drink was served to an underage person there, but because it was a first offense, they were given a warning.

Members of the board and Peabody police Lt. Thomas O’Keefe, who supervises the stings, expressed regret over the difficulties created for the establishments, but they acknowledged the need to impose discipline on businesses selling alcohol.

Former City Councilor Fred Murtagh, the newest member of the board said, “In this economy, I hate to close someone down. ... It’s easy to miss one if you get a guy who’s not paying attention.”

Chairman Minas Dakos expressed frustration that businesses, knowing that the stings will be coming to test them, aren’t more careful.

“It’s not easy, but we did have a violation in the past,” he said of Champion’s lapse.

For their part, Phil Mitchell and Kevin Houlden of Champion’s stressed that they took the problem so seriously that they fired the 10-year employee who made the mistake in serving the young woman. “That was a tough thing to do,” Mitchell said. He said that the establishment has become more of a family-style eatery in the past years and he is determined to prevent any more violations.

“I can’t have it,” he said.

Member Nancy Delaney noted that the usual punishment for a second offense is a three-day suspension. In this case, given that the previous one-day suspension was not imposed, it would be added in.

Murtagh balked at such a severe punishment. He suggested a compromise, “and next time, we give them four.”

In response, O’Keefe wondered what he was expected to tell others who had served out the usual suspensions.

“Blame me,” he urged the board members. He added that all this was hard for him, too, as he knows personally the man who was fired for serving the drink.

“He knows my wife. And my dog’s name. So, I feel terrible,” he said.

“These guys are good guys,” Dakos said of Mitchell and Houlden. “It’s too bad this happened. But something has to be done.”

The board settled on a three-day suspension, and the owners were allowed to choose the days, Sept. 1, 2 and 3.

Delaney said, however, that the city’s lawyer has ruled that while all the liquor must be put away or covered, Champion’s can continue to serve food during the suspension.

The sting involves sending out an underage operative to each of 80 Peabody establishments dealing in alcohol, O’Keefe said. The drink, if served, is never sampled.

“We do the whole city three times a year,” he said.

Nordstrom’s displayed its concern over its violation by sending a regional manager, Michael Gross, to the hearing. O’Keefe said the Nordstrom’s employee who served the beer had gone awry after doing one right thing, asking for an ID.

“She was halfway there,” he said.

But when the customer did not have an ID, the server replied, “Aw, you look like you’re old enough.”

“Lieutenant, thank you for the job you all do. ... It keeps us on our toes,” Gross said.

He said that the server hasn’t been fired, but the cafe has reviewed procedures with the staff.

Staff writer Alan Burke can be reached at aburke@salemnews.com.