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LIQUOR LAW IS DIFFERENT HERE

It's harder to get a drink in Pasco. Some folks want to change that.

Say you are dining at Golden Tequila, a Mexican restaurant on U.S. 19. Say you are an adult. Say you want an adult drink.

Your selection includes: Dos Equis. Corona. White zinfandel. Chardonnay.

What you won't find at Golden Tequila: any drink made with tequila.

"We sell margaritas made with wine," said restaurant owner Castulo Vasquez. "But it does not compare."

Pasco County, it turns out, has stricter size requirements for restaurants that may serve liquor-based drinks than the state does. These requirements are enshrined in state statute.

But Golden Tequila, the tiny restaurant that can sell only wine and beer, may help change that.

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Most restaurants in Florida that want to serve liquor must get a special alcoholic beverage license, which costs about $1,820 to renew each year. (These licenses are different from the so-called "quota licenses," which the state limits based on a county's population and which are too expensive for most restaurants.)

To qualify for the special license, the restaurant must get at least 51 percent of its revenue from food and nonalcoholic beverages and, in most counties, meet certain size requirements: at least 2,500 square feet and able to serve at least 150 people.

Pasco is different on the size requirements. Back in 1971, someone pushed for - and won - Pasco-specific state legislation on liquor licenses. This act said restaurants that want to serve liquor must be at least 4,000 square feet and able to serve at least 200 people.

Pasco is one of more than a dozen counties with larger requirements, according to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Why Pasco? People today aren't sure.

Golden Tequila's landlord, Gilbert Jannelli, started doing some research when his tenant came to him with its too-small-for-liquor predicament.

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Old-timers in the county couldn't say what the requirements were all about. Neither could people Jannelli talked to at the state level.

"Nobody seemed to remember why," said Jannelli, an optometrist who lives in Clearwater and has an office in New Port Richey.

So Jannelli took the next step: Why not try to get the old Pasco law repealed so restaurants like Golden Tequila can apply for licenses?

He started working the phones.

"This gives the smaller restaurants the same leverage as the bigger guys," Jannelli said. "When (officials) saw the positives for the small-business man, it was a no-brainer."

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House Bill 487, which is sponsored by Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs, would repeal the old Pasco-related state statute. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, is sponsoring an identical bill in the Senate.

If the bill becomes law, restaurants in Pasco would need to meet the smaller state standards to apply for liquor licenses.

Nehr, who introduces the bill in the House today, said about 300 restaurants in Pasco would be eligible to buy the liquor licenses under the proposed legislation.

Nehr, who has gotten letters of support from county officials, said he thinks other counties with different requirements than the state may follow Pasco's lead.

The power to serve liquor, especially during slow economic times, could be a help.

"Some of these restaurants are in a lot of trouble," said Nehr, "and this helps them with a little more revenue."

Meanwhile, at the Golden Tequila, there are plans in the works.

The restaurant is only about 2,100 square feet, smaller than the state requirements. But if the bill passes, the restaurant will embark on an expansion project that will put the total size around 3,000 square feet.

That will make the Golden Tequila finally big enough to serve a real margarita.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

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