An Open Letter from Chef Matt Welsch about the Ongoing Saga Related to Alcohol Sales at the Vagabond Kitchen

“Is the Vagabond Kitchen still doing BYOB?”

“I really wish you guys served wine and beer with these amazing meals.”

“I was going to bring my friends from out-of-town to the restaurant last Saturday, but they wanted drinks. What is going on with that by the way?”Vagabond Kitchen BYOB sign

It’s been about five months since we moved into the McClure hotel on Market St. in downtown Wheeling. During that time, we’ve often faced what seemed like insurmountable obstacles to go along with the immensely fulfilling sense of accomplishment we feel when we provide a great dining experience to those who have been so faithful to support us.

You have grown with us while allowing us to grow. Though we have always striven to serve the best food with the best service in Wheeling, we also realize that we haven’t always met those goals. You have been patient while recognizing that there were and are growing pains that every new restaurant and business goes through, and we want you, Wheeling and the Greater Ohio Valley, to know how much we appreciate you sticking with us while we figure this all out.

For that reason, we wanted to take this opportunity to address something that has been an unfolding narrative and might be coming off as inconsistent and confusing – namely why aren’t we able to offer craft beers and wine that so many of you continually ask for.

What we want to do in this article and in an ongoing way is to offer you the complete story, from its beginnings in late April to the present, in an attempt to be transparent and let you in on what goes on behind the scenes of the Vagabond Kitchen.

So, without further introduction, here it is.

April 2014

Katie saw an ad on Craigslist just about the same time that Steve Novotney, who at the time was heading up the marketing department here at the McClure Hotel, mentioned to me that I should consider the space to open a restaurant in downtown Wheeling. While touring the restaurant, we were told that Robert Weimer, who lives in Philadelphia and also owned the now defunct Hat Tricks bar in downtown Wheeling, was leasing the bar next door, and the restaurant and kitchen were technically on the footprint for his liquor license but that they would make sure the space was removed when the license was reissued in July.

This seemed reasonable to Katie and I, and internally, we began discussing a short-term BYOB option, a very viable option for restaurants in cities all across the country for businesses who don’t want to deal with the added responsibility, paperwork, and inventory that comes with stocking a bar. To ensure that we were operating within the law, we talked to Robert Herron, the Wheeling City Manager. He informed us that there were no city laws forbidding it, so as far as the city was concerned, we were in the clear.

June 2014

As the soft opening approached, I decided to call the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) in Charleston to ensure that what we were doing was, in fact, on the up-and-up. We were informed that allowing BYOB was illegal if we had a license to sell alcohol in that space, but that, technically, they only actively policed locations licensed through them. Otherwise, it was up to the local authorities on how they wanted to handle it.

Since we had already spoken with the representatives of the city of Wheeling, we took this to mean that we were in the clear until the Vagabond Kitchen was removed from the footprint registered by Mr. Weimer as promised.

This seemed to be a great short-term solution. It didn’t help us financially, but our customers seemed reasonably okay with the policy, and for the time, that was good enough for us. We even put up signage on that advertised us as Wheeling’s first BYOB.

We will also probably be Wheeling’s last BYOB because the regional ABC, when informed of a caller whose name was not released to us, quickly contacted us to offer their opinion on our policy.

On August 8th, I received a phone call from Tim Mattern, the local representative for the ABC. To say that Mr. Mattern was unhappy would have paid injustice to the level of aggravation and unpleasantness that were being expressed on behalf of that regulatory body.

However, after explaining the entire situation including the fact that ultimately we wanted to be legit but were waiting for other people to do what they had promised, he calmed down considerably and was really very helpful. Often times, the truth is found in the context, and people are just trying to do their jobs.

In attempts to show that we were trying to be compliant but not complacent, we agreed that we would neither actively enforce nor advertise any BYOB policy until the license issue was resolved.

With that understanding, I immediately began working with the McClure Hotel to come up with a solution that was beneficial for everyone.

First of all, I want to make it clear that the McClure Hotel has been working hard to come up with a solution to this matter. They were sincere when they said that they would have the restaurant and kitchen removed from the license footprint, going so far as to offer Mr. Weimer a considerable break on his rent to help compensate him for what he insists will mean a drop in his drink sales. The McClure is not responsible for the kitchen not being removed because the license is not in their name and, therefore, they were not part of the process that led to Robert Weimer not moving ahead with the agreed upon plan.

After talking to the local ABC representative, not only did I remove the signage but I began reaching out to Mr. Weimer to offer a series of what I felt were very viable solutions that would be financially beneficial for us both while offering improved experiences for both of our patronage as well. Namely, one involving him offering only food from the kitchen and us offering his domestic alcohol but allowing us to offer wine and craft beers not already offered by his establishment.

Robert Weimer responded by offering us the following sweet deal: We could send our front end staff over to his bar, and he would sell our patrons his alcohol at his price. Essentially, he would allow us to use our staff to offer our customers his alcohol at his regular price – we’d gain no benefit, and he seemed to think that was the way it should be.

He also offered us one more option. We could buy the bar for $60,000. The only problem is that he doesn’t own the bar. He rents the space just like we do. What he was really offering to do was to sell us the name and license for $60,000.

First of all, a license doesn’t cost anywhere near $60,000, and I’m not interested in the name of his establishment. Besides, the way I saw it, and continue to see it, removing us from the footprint was part of what was agreed upon in the beginning and what he was given a break in rent for. Now he was trying trying to take as much as he could while investing as little as possible. That doesn’t fly with me.

At that time, I didn’t know what to do. I continued to talk to the hotel and send him offers that went largely unanswered until about six weeks ago when he suddenly offered something seemingly workable. He offered to give us all of the wine sales, but that he wanted to maintain control of the beer sales. I encouraged him to consider the fact that we were not dealing with the same clientele and therefore would not be selling the same types of beer. His bar caters to the oil and gas field workers who stay at the McClure. They want cheap beer and lots of it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but our patrons continually ask for specialty beers that are of a higher quality and a higher price tag.

My counter-offer was to let us sell wine and a couple craft beers of our choice since he currently doesn’t offer any craft or specialty beers. He agreed.

This should be the end of this article, but it isn’t. As I tried to follow up on this agreement, iron out the details, and move forward with the newly agreed upon plan, my emails and calls went unanswered. Finally, just before Halloween, Mr. Weimer answered the phone and informed me that there was no deal or compromise. If we wanted to sell alcohol at the Vagabond Kitchen, it would be his beer at his price and our servers would be responsible for running back and forth.

Furthermore, he wanted to know what are plans were for alcohol at our Monster’s Ball on Halloween. Since this seemed a bit like a veiled threat, I decided to cover all of my bases and call the State ABC in Charleston again. After getting bumped around to a few different people, I landed on the phone with Shawn Smith who greeted me with, “Are you the guy doing BYOB in Wheeling?” When I explained to him our position and that we weren’t, in fact, encouraging it but weren’t discouraging it either, he responded with, “Well, you need to stop.”

As it turns out, what Robert Weimer was telling us was true – kind of. He couldn’t legally resell us beer to sell to our patrons because we didn’t have a license. What he wasn’t telling us was that because the kitchen and restaurant are listed on his footprint, he is legally obligated to offer food at his bar.

It may be necessary to give a little backstory here that we just found out ourselves. If this were a movie, this is where the squiggly lines would come in and the screen would be black and white. As it turns out, the restaurant is on the footprint because Mr. Weimer was supposed to operate both. Originally, he had brought in someone to run the restaurant portion, but that owner, according to our investigative sources, never even paid his first food order from the distributor. He was just gone. To get around it, as we have been told – though we have not verified this – Mr. Weimer is offering Spaghettios cooked in a microwave. If his patrons don’t like that option, they are free to order the take-out of their choosing.

When the hotel rented the space to us, Mr. Weimer obviously didn’t think we’d succeed because he hadn’t succeeded. What he doesn’t understand, and this is an aside, is that we are succeeding because we want to be part of the community, not just another restaurant that treats food and customers like a commodity. It’s a different business model, and one we believe in.

All that to say, by not running the kitchen he is in violation of his license and his lease, and that is essentially what the letter from the McClure Management is informing him of.

To try to make this work for everyone involved, I have even gone so far as to send over a special bar menu different from what the Vagabond Kitchen offers with the message that if he agrees to not allow take-out anymore and sells our food, we will be happy to sell his alcohol.

We have not received a response.

So, this brings us to today. Because the state has told us that our allowing of BYOB could affect our ability to get a license later in the game, we have decided to actively stop it from happening. We understand that this is a problem for our patrons because people enjoy drinks with dinner. We do too. However, with the letter being sent, and the McClure now applying pressure to update the footprint so that they can sell alcohol at their events in the ballroom, it appears that we might finally be coming to the end of this crazy mess.

Through it all, our goal has never changed, and we want our customers and all of Wheeling to know that we were acting on a good-faith promise. We want to offer the best dining experience in Wheeling, and we know that this is something that many of you desire. We hope that this story illustrates to you the lengths that we are going to provide those options to you. Please hang in there with us. It’s going to happen.

On a side note, I truly believe this is why Wheeling struggles. There is an ongoing belief in scarcity. We can only succeed by making sure others do not. Here at the Vagabond Kitchen, we believe in a philosophy of abundance. We believe that it is better for everyone if other restaurants and bars do well. That is why we promote other cool things that other restaurants are doing. We’re not scared of their success. We just want to be the best at what we do.

As I stated earlier, this story will be reposted as updates are available. Until then, please hang with us and understand that we are looking at the big picture. In the end, the few months that it might take to get this straightened out will be all worth it if we are able to bring in top notch wine and beer choices when it’s all over.

We know that will happen one way or another.

We want to hear from you. Please leave your comments, suggestions and feedback on our facebook page. As always, thank you all for your continued support by sharing meals with us and suggesting your friends do the same.

UPDATE 12-14: After initially being told that the hotel was in the process of sending off the letter that alerted Robert Weimer of his obligation to remove the restaurant and ballroom space from the footprint of the existing alcohol license, it came to light that the hotel, in fact, didn’t actually have a working address to send the letter to. When it became evident that finding that address wasn’t high on the priority list, I immediately did a Google search and delivered the address to them personally.

As of last week, that letter still has not been sent, and I’ve been unable to reach anyone in regards to the matter this week. Meanwhile, the situation continues to be not only unresolved but also a serious hurdle in our attempts to build dinner traffic and work towards having a full dinner menu instead of just the six nightly features we’re currently doing. Customers are, deservedly, both uncomfortable with going over to the bar and unsatisfied with the inconvenience as well as the selection.

We are continuing to both work toward a solution to the current issue as well as explore alternative options.