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Pricey Bottle Service Jeopardized by Big Soda Ban, Nightlife Industry Fears

By Jill Colvin | March 4, 2013 12:10pm

NEW YORK CITY — Bar and club owners are scrambling to halt the city from including high-end bottle service in its controversial large soda ban, warning the change could kill the pricey nightlife staple.

Nightlife insiders said they received notice from the city's Health Department that they would be included in the ban and barred from serving sugary drinks and sodas in containers larger than 16 ounces — even if the containers are served alongside multiple, smaller glasses.

That would put a damper on the carafes of tonic water or Coke currently served with pricey bottles of Grey Goose and Jack Daniels at clubs and lounges.

"We’re seeing that the reach of this law might be even wider than we previously believed," said Andrew Moesel, a spokesman for the New York State Restaurant Association, which has been fighting the ban.

“You pay $500 for a bottle of vodka, you should be able to get some juice," he quipped.

A spokeswoman for the city's Health Department said the rule change would apply to all establishments overseen by the agency, including bars, clubs and lounges that don't typically serve food.

Bar and restaurant owners said they just don't understand the benefit of serving the same amount of liquid in five small containers instead of a single large one.

“It makes no sense to us at all," said Rob Bookman, an attorney for the New York City Hospitality Alliance, which represents establishments across the city.

“Even in the upside-down world of this proposal, this interpretation is not consistent with what they passed.”

The industry is planning a meeting with Health Department officials to try to convince them to reinterpret the rules, he said.

In the meantime, bars and lounges are trying to figure out if and how they will comply.

Some are on the lookout for 100-percent orange and cranberry juice alternatives, while others have been shopping for smaller carafes to replace the liter-sized containers, or 33.8-ounce vessels, that are common.

Paul Seres, former head of the New York Nightlife Association and a partner in the Lower East Side's popular The DL and Dinner on Ludlow, said he's looking for smaller containers.

But he wondered how, logistically, he'll be able to fit so many smaller bottles on his cocktail-sized tables, and said he's worried he'll need to pay extra waitstaff for the constant refilling, potentially upping prices.

“Now you have to refill that darn thing every 20 minutes," said Seres, who estimated that bottle service accounted for about a quarter of his business.

“It’s a really thin margin that we are going to have to deal with,” he said.

He also said he didn't understand the rule.

"It’s the same amount of liquid," he said, as he'd serve otherwise in glasses. "It doesn’t make any sense."

Other venues that could see the new size restrictions put a pinch on their business include pizza deliveries that can no longer sell large bottles of Coke and family-style restaurants that won't be allowed to sell pitchers of soda.

One hundred-percent fruit juice with no added sugars, diet juices, diet sodas and soda water will still be allowed in any sized container, but sugary drinks will be limited as of March 12, unless the plan is blocked by a judge.

Those who break the rules will be slapped with $200 fines after a three-month grace period, beginning in June.

Moesel said that any changes were of serious concern for owners whose businesses depend on patrons slapping down thousands of dollars for an exclusive experience.

“High-end nightlife takes every detail into account to make sure its customers have an incredible experience," he said. While size restrictions won't ruin the practice, he said, “We believe it should be left to the businesses owner to make that decision.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, meanwhile, has seemed unsympathetic to the concerns.

"I mean, if you’re going to drink more than 16 ounces of alcohol with something in it, you’re not going to make it out of the bar!" he said at a press conference when asked about the measure.

"Or maybe go out in a stretcher.”