Changes to B.C.’s liquor regulations went into effect last Wednesday (Feb. 6), meaning caterers across the province can now obtain and carry their own liquor licences, a move that Whistler’s council has been pushing to see happen for years.
Until the new legislation came into effect, caterers could only serve alcohol if the event host had obtained a special occasion licence, completed a liquor service course and bought all the alcohol themselves. Under the new laws, event hosts can choose whether they want to apply for the licence themselves, as before, or hand over the responsibility to caterers.
“It’s a modernization of the liquor act. I think what it allows is for a wide variety of hospitality industry businesses to better service offsite customers responsibly,” said Mark von Schellwitz, Western Canada’s vice-president of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association. “It seems quite silly that you could organize a catered event, you can organize all the food, all the entertainment, but when it came to liquor … you have to go to the liquor store, pick up your own booze, get your own special occasion licence and (the caterer) couldn’t have any part of that.”
The province’s liquor licence changes came as a result of years of lobbying from B.C.’s foodservice industry, including local caterers like Grant Cousar, owner of Whistler Cooks Catering. Cousar teamed up with a group of likeminded caterers, mostly from Victoria and Vancouver, he said, to lobby the provincial government to consider new regulations.
“We just took a really positive approach to it. This is something that was good for the province,” he said. “Yes, it was challenging to operate in the past environment, but we had all built successful businesses doing it, so this was just an opportunity to succeed even more.”
Cousar said some local caterers were emboldened during the 2010 Winter Games when they were awarded temporary liquor licences, eventually ramping up their efforts to lobby the provincial government for permanent changes to the legislation.
He expects the changes to have a positive effect on the foodservice industry in Whistler, especially since the resort town is such a popular destination for tourists.
“Whistler has a fairly international client base and previously it was a very challenging scenario to operate for an event that was coming from outside the province because they would actually be the ones that would have to hold the special occasions licence,” he said, adding the new regulations will “definitely be added revenue” for local caterers looking to serve alcohol at offsite events.
The new laws also benefit B.C. restaurant and bar operators that can now apply for increased patio seating for special events. Von Schellwitz said he expects restaurants will take advantage of the changes by hosting their own offsite events as well.
The new measures were part of a joint resolution presented by Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, along with the mayors of Pemberton, Squamish and the SLRD chair, at the September’s Union of British Columbia Municipalities conference in Victoria.
“We had a number of changes that we were recommending the province consider, and this was one of them,” said Wilhelm-Morden. “It was a very awkward, anomalous situation and it extended to things like the GranFondo celebration after the race. One organization would hold the catering licence and a not-for-profit would hold the liquor licence. It just didn’t make any sense.”
The resort town mayor wants the province to continue to update some of its “archaic” liquor licensing laws so they better align with a “contemporary Whistler.” Tops on her list of laws to update is a regulation dictating that the consumption of alcohol at special events must occur within an enclosed space out of the view of minors, as was the case at this year’s GranFondo.
For von Schellwitz and the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, top priority is getting provincial officials to consider offering alcohol at wholesale prices for licensees.
“(B.C.) is one of the highest priced liquor jurisdictions from a wholesale price point of view in the whole world, so we would really appreciate for licensees to get some sort of a wholesale discount. That will save us money, and it will save consumers money,” he said. “We get tourists from other countries coming here asking why our liquor prices are so high, and the reason is because our retail prices are so high.”
There are 760 registered caterers in B.C., bringing in roughly $589 million in revenue annually.