Bonfire of the Hypocrisies

The Portland City Council’s controversial decision to close Sangillo’s Tavern, the beloved neighborhood bar at the foot of Munjoy Hill, raises an important question: What exactly does a liquor establishment have to do in this town to get shut down?

The cover story I wrote for this month’s issue of The Bollard, “The Wild End of Wharf Street,” raises the logical follow-up to that question: When will city officials revoke the liquor license of Bonfire, a country-and-western bar that opened in the Old Port, on Wharf Street, last summer?

Let’s review the concerns that caused Sangillo’s to lose its license after over six decades of responsible operation and see how Bonfire measures up to those standards.

The mayor and four councilors who voted to close Sangillo’s last spring were alarmed that bar manager Kathleen Sangillo was not familiar with the TIPS program, a course offered by a for-profit company, based in Virginia, that purportedly teaches bartenders how to responsibly serve alcoholic beverages. Nevermind that the three regular bartenders at Sangillo’s collectively had over half a century of experience responsibly serving the tavern’s customers — the city insisted they needed more training.

I assume the young women behind the bar at Bonfire have all taken the TIPS course (the awkward acronym stands for Training for Intervention ProcedureS). Bonfire owner Tanner Herget — who also owns the rowdy Old Port nightclub 51 Wharf, located a couple doors down the street — has been chairman of the city’s quasi-official Nightlife Oversight Committee (NLOC) for the past four years. NLOC routinely recommends that bar owners pay to have all their servers TIPS-certified.

What would the TIPS instructors say about Herget’s routine of lifting Bonfire’s employees up onto the bar so they can walk around pouring free shots of whiskey before last call? How about Bonfire’s daily happy hour, when whiskey shots cost only $1? And what about the bar’s self-service “beer wall,” which allows customers to pour their own brews with minimal oversight by staff?

A bartender pouring free shots of whiskey at Bonfire last month. photo/Chris Busby

A bartender pouring free shots of whiskey at Bonfire last month. photo/Chris Busby

Is all this legal? Apparently. Is it responsible? Judging by the high number of patrons who, according to witnesses, stagger out of Bonfire to puke and fight in the street, I’m gonna say the answer is no. But what do I know? I’m not TIPS-certified, so I can only apply common sense.

Sangillo’s was condemned for not having a manager on duty every night — this at a place not much larger than a walk-in closet where, again, the staff had decades of experience. Bonfire has a manager (or at least half a manager), a guy named Bobby Dyer who supposedly manages Bonfire and 51 Wharf, both of which are much larger and busier than Sangillo’s.

Dyer also takes it upon himself to “manage” the chaotic scene on Wharf Street outside his establishments. In late January, the owner of a café across the street from Bonfire recorded about five minutes of that scene on video. Around the three-minute mark, Dyer angrily confronts the café owner, attempts to block his camera, then tries (unsuccessfully) to goad this neighboring business owner into a fist fight. When the cops walk into the frame, Dyer asks them to stop his neighbor from exercising his right to document what’s taking place on the public street, claiming the café owner is the one “causing problems” by recording the problems outside Dyer’s establishments.

Does that count as a police call? Sangillo’s was damned for having been the approximate location of numerous calls to police for disturbance of the peace, most of them placed by a neighbor who later told state liquor officials the bar had remedied the issue. At least half a dozen cops stand around Wharf Street almost every night, so they don’t need to be called to Bonfire — they’re already there, responding to dozens of disturbances every week, documented or otherwise. The mayhem on Wharf Street has increased since Bonfire opened. And contrary to a common misperception, there are as many or more apartments above Wharf Street as there are near Sangillo’s.

Granted, someone got shot outside Sangillo’s after the bar was closed for the night. But after Bonfire and 51 Wharf close each night, Dyer — the short-tempered manager who instigates fights even with people who aren’t threatening him — openly carries a gun in expectation of trouble. Herget also packs heat, usually concealed beneath a jacket, but he’s only at his bars on weekends.

So here’s my last question: Do we have to wait until somebody gets shot on Wharf Street before the city takes action? Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.