Owners of Bonefish Grill in Bel Air, who have been running their establishment for five months without any members of their limited liability corporation on their liquor license as the law requires, have about two weeks to get their paperwork in order.
If not, the Harford County Liquor Control Board will pull Bonefish's license and, with it, the Harford Mall restaurant's ability to sell alcohol.
One way they can move toward compliance, the board decided at its meeting Wednesday, is to allow a trusted employee to make a nominal investment in the LCC to satisfy one legal requirement.
Board members voted 4-0 to require Bonefish of Bel Air LLC to submit all relevant paperwork before the board's next meeting March 4 and place two members of the LLC on the license. Board member Thomas Fidler Jr. was absent.
The paperwork actually must be submitted by Feb. 27 to give board staff time to process it before the next meeting.
"I think we need to get the old problem straightened out before we go into a new license and a new year," board member Vernon Gauss Jr. said.
Bonefish of Bel Air LLC previously applied to the liquor board to put Derek Bergman, the current kitchen manager, on the liquor license. The former sole licensee left the company, and the current license, which must be renewed annually, expires April 30. There have not been any active licensees since September of 2014, according to the liquor board.
Bergman does not have a pecuniary, or financial, stake in the LLC, however, and Harford's liquor laws require that the licensees, up to three in the case of an LLC – depending on the number of investors, have a financial interest.
Liquor board administrators and board attorney Pilar Gracia have been working with the LLC members and their attorney, Joseph Snee, of Bel Air, to resolve the matter, but they reached an impasse, Gracia said.
"There needs to be a determination [by the board] in order to proceed," she said.
Board Administrator Judith Powell explained Thursday that officials have been "attempting to resolve these issues, and unfortunately, we were not able to do so, and that's why we put it before the board yesterday for a preliminary determination."
Bergman, who appeared board with Snee's law partner Colleen Helmlinger, said he works at the restaurant from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and he divides his time between the kitchen and the front of the establishment. He also oversees liquor ordering and inventory.
Helmlinger said Snee was out of town for an emergency.
The board determined that Joseph Kadow, who is a member of the LLC but not a currently licensee, can be on the license, and Bergman can become a licensee, if he invests at least $100 in the company.
"I don't doubt your skills," board Chairwoman Sandi Tunney told Bergman. "It's just getting the paperwork in order."
Gracia said two licensees "would be a satisfactory happy place."
Board members also voted 3-1 to impose a $1,500 fine on the operators of Steelefish Grille, of Bel Air, for serving alcohol to a person under age 21.
Steelefish, which opened in the former Freddie's Bar & Grill location on Boulton Street during the summer of 2014, failed a Dec. 20, 2014 compliance test conducted by the liquor board with a Bel Air Police Department cadet.
The cadet, who was accompanied by a Harford County Sheriff's Office deputy, ordered a Blue Moon draft beer from Steelefish bartender, Julie Fowler, according to a liquor board report, which states Fowler served the beer and did not ask the cadet about his age or for any identification.
Steelefish licensees Daniel Powell and David Steele appeared by the board, accompanied by their attorney, Jay Young, of Bel Air.
Young said Fowler was suspended for two weeks without pay, and the operators have instituted a policy that any staffer who serves alcohol to a minor will be "immediately terminated."
"It's just a little disturbing, the first sting, you guys get nailed," Gauss said of the Steelefish operators. "I don't want to see you come back every time you have a sting."
Young said compliance training has been scheduled for the employees, and he praised a recent decision by the liquor board to have the Sheriff's Office issue criminal citations to staffers who serve minors, which will take effect when compliance tests begin this year.
No citation was issued against Fowler when the test was conducted, since it occurred before the new policy took effect.
"I believe the liquor board's action is going to be very helpful," Young said.
He said it "will help the licensees to get their employees to be compliant.
Tunney voted against the fine, saying later she thought it was "a little too high."