Focusing on Food Part 1 – Liquor Licence Laws BC

The Liquor Control and Licensing Branch issues food primary licences to businesses (restaurants) where the primary purpose, through all hours and areas of operation, is the service of food. This is in contrast to liquor primary licences (bars, lounges and night clubs) where the primary purpose of the business is the service of liquor.

The rules that apply to the operation of each type of licence reflect the primary purpose of the establishment. For example food primary establishments must offer both appetizers and main courses, whereas liquor primary establishments need only offer snacks. The approval process for the two types of licence is also different. The approval of a liquor primary licence is more rigorous and depends on the views and support of local residents and government. The approval process for a food primary licence is less stringent and typically does not require the support of local government.

As a result of the different processes and considerations involved in obtaining a liquor primary licence, the Branch considers it a serious contravention of the Act to circumvent the approval process by applying for a food primary licence and then operating the establishment as a bar.

Prudent owners and managers should periodically review the terms and conditions contained in the Guide for Liquor Licensees in British Columbia to ensure that during all hours of operation, and in all areas of the restaurant, their food primary establishment meets the following requirements:

  • The kitchen is open, and staffed, whenever liquor is served
  • A menu that contains a reasonable variety of appetizers and main courses is available (chips and salsa or a bowl of peanuts do not count)
  • Tables and chairs, plates and cutlery suitable for eating are available for customers
  • Entertainment and games offered in the restaurant do not distract from the primary purpose of the service of food.

Previously there was confusion in the industry as to whether or not a food primary licensee could serve liquor to a customer without food. Fortunately the Branch clarified this area of the law recently, and confirmed that so long as you are running your restaurant “properly” a customer seated at a table in a dining area may be served liquor without food.

Despite widespread practice within the industry, if your establishment operates under a food primary licence it is not acceptable for the kitchen to be closed while alcohol is being served. Food primary establishments must be focused on the service of food during all hours of operation. Liquor must be an accompaniment to the service of food – not the other way around.

Remember that the Branch continues to monitor the restaurant industry to ensure that the conditions of food primary licences are being met, and it will take enforcement action against those establishments that choose not to follow the rules.

*Alcohol & Advocacy publishes articles for information purposes only. They are not a substitute for legal advice, and persons requiring such advice should consult legal counsel.

Dan Coles
Retired bartender. Young lawyer. From the East, living in the West. Interested in British Columbia's producers and purveyors of wine, beer and spirits.

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