The new owner of the Thai House Restaurant says Largo's strict alcohol regulations are crippling his business.
Thai House can't serve wine or beer because the restaurant at Largo Mall is too close to Fuguitt Elementary School.
Establishments that sell alcohol to drink on site are prohibited within 300 feet of a church, child care facility or public school, according to city code.
"I'm not trying to promote alcohol or beer," owner Tony Allen said. "I want to give someone a nice dining experience."
One week last month, Thai House lost 52 groups of diners who wanted alcoholic drinks with their meals, said Allen, a charter boat captain whose wife has owned and operated several restaurants.
That same week, on a Saturday night, "we had 11 groups of people that walked because they all wanted to buy sake," he said.
Largo calculates distance in a straight path from the property line of the school to the nearest wall of an establishment, which, in this case, is near the restaurant's back door. By that method, the restaurant is about 90 feet from the school's northwest property line.
The code should be based on access, not distance, Allen said.
Between the school land and the back of the building, there is a fence about 8 feet high and a dense thicket of trees.
"There is no access to the property from the rear. You can't even see the school," Allen said.
To enter the restaurant from the school at 13010 101st St., someone would have to walk more than 1,000 yards and pass an Albertsons liquor store and grocery, which also sells wine and beer, Allen said.
Allen bought the restaurant in August and applied for the license from the state. But he wasn't able to get an okay from the city.
Since Thai House opened in September, Allen and city officials have exchanged a flurry of e-mails.
Places that have a valid, active alcoholic beverage license "can obtain a license when ownership changes," community development director Carol Stricklin informed Allen in October. Unfortunately, that was not Allen's case, she wrote.
A previous owner's alcoholic beverage license expired in September 2007, according to state records. And that appears to be last license at the location.
"Had there been an active license, we would have been able to give him the sign-off," Stricklin said.
Last month, Allen sent an e-mail to City Hall saying the restaurant would "mount a public campaign" and "have to start making waves" to solve the problem.
City commissioners plan to discuss the issue at Tuesday's community work session. They'll consider either reducing the distance requirement or instituting a different means of measurement, Stricklin said.
Largo's calculation method is relatively common, she said.
The county's two largest cities do determine distance in a similar way. But they're not so strict when it comes to restaurants that serve alcohol.
For example, Clearwater's code addresses nightclubs, but not restaurants that serve alcohol. The city generally requires that nightclubs and package stores be at least 500 feet from places of worship or schools. Distance is measured from property line to property line.
St. Petersburg doesn't have a distance requirement for restaurants that serve alcohol, either. But the city, which uses a method like Largo's, requires establishments that serve primarily alcohol to be 400 feet from facilities like churches and schools.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4155.