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State alcohol regulators clear way for expanded outdoor service

La Reforma Brewery owners John Gozigian, left, and Jeff Jinnett plan to expand their service area to the parking lot of their Northeast Albuquerque location now that state regulators are offering temporary floor plan changes to allow social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

John Gozigian has plans for expanding his year-old brewery – and he’s got his eyes on five spaces in the parking lot.

The co-founder of Albuquerque’s La Reforma Brewery has applied for permission to serve his beer and food in a place normally devoted to cars – a way, he hopes, to help restore business activity after months of adversity.

Gozigian’s plan is possible because the state, which regulates alcohol licensees, is giving restaurants such as his and eventually bars the chance to expand their service area with temporary, makeshift patios in areas including parking lots – a way to alleviate the pain caused by ongoing capacity restrictions.

“The Regulation and Licensing Department has been sympathetic to the impact this has on our local businesses here in New Mexico,” New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department spokeswoman Bernice Geiger said. “We see this as an innovative way to support their return during this COVID-19 crisis.

“Hopefully, it will spur a renaissance of outdoor dining.”

The move comes after months of tight restrictions.

The state only last week allowed restaurants to reopen to dine-in customers, but they can operate at only 50% capacity, must position tables at least 6 feet apart and cannot use counter or bar seating.

From late March through late May, restaurants were barred from offering sit-down service at all but could offer takeout or delivery.

Operating within those parameters meant significant downsizing at La Reforma; Gozigian said that he cut his staff from 25 to five over the spring and that revenue in April was down 70% compared with pre-pandemic levels.

As of last week, La Reforma brought back everybody, but the rules against bar service mean it can seat only about 40% to 45% of its normal capacity, Gozigian said.

La Reforma Brewery’s Jeff Jinnett, left, and John Gozigian are seeking state approval of a temporary patio to accommodate more customers while public health orders restrict their indoor capacity.

Adding space with a tent in the parking lot will make a significant difference.

“It won’t get us up to 100%, but it will get us up to 80, which is definitely helpful,” Gozigian said.

Approval is a multiagency process.

The Albuquerque City Council last week passed legislation to enable a city-level OK. Councilor Brook Bassan, who co-sponsored the bill with Trudy Jones, said that expanding a restaurant’s footprint during the COVID-19 pandemic could make patrons feel safer in the age of social distancing.

“They’re not going to want to be in tight quarters,” she said.

The bill is one of several recent city initiatives that give restaurants and other businesses ways to temporarily expand outdoors.

But when alcohol is involved, the city does not have sole control.

The state must be involved, and on May 28, New Mexico regulators notified alcohol licensees about the new application for the temporary floor plan changes.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the temporary patio option can help eateries adjust.

“The governor recognizes that occupancy restrictions are a heavy burden on the food service industry and this effort allows restaurants more flexibility in safely expanding their service,” spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said in an email.

Bars remain closed under state order – and there is no set date for their reopening – but the Regulation and Licensing Department says they will have the temporary patio option, too.

Owners seeking state approval must surround their new outdoor service area with a barrier at least 3 feet tall and show they have permission from the landowner if they are using space they do not already own or lease.

The temporary changes are good only through Oct. 31, although those seeking permanent expansions can pursue them through a separate, existing process.

Gozigian said Monday that he has city approval but is waiting on the state OK and hopes to have the tent in business by later this week. It will accommodate eight tables.

La Reforma – which opened last summer at 8900 San Mateo NE, Suite I – has had no patio service before now, but Gozigian said he’s happy to add that element if it means moving closer to full speed after months of hardship and uncertainty.

“You have to adapt to survive,” he said. “This is the new thing, and it’s definitely helpful for us.”

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