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The behind the scene story of the liquor licensing of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California
The call I'd been expecting came late on a Friday evening. I was alone in the office reviewing the architect's plans for the building that everyone in Los Angeles was buzzing about — and had patiently waited for sixteen excruciating years to see built — The Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Our firm, The American Liquor License Exchange, had been contacted several months earlier by The Patina Group, the company that had been awarded the coveted restaurant contract at the concert hall, for our assistance in licensing this building. In addition to the restaurant, Patina was also responsible for providing food and beverage service for all of the concert hall’s satellite bars, thirteen in total. The entire facility, all 293,000 square feet, had to be licensed by the state liquor department before a patron could order a designer cocktail or sip a glass of celebratory champagne.
Now it was crunch time. A grand opening without a liquor license would be nothing less than a disaster for the operators of the restaurant. It was up to us to make sure that the members of the Founders Room, the private area where people like the Mayor of Los Angeles, head fund raiser and billionaire Eli Broad, and all the other Tinsel Town VIP’s could lift a toast.
"Jon, can we get licensed in time for the opening?"
My contacts voice sounded tight, no doubt caused by the pressure gauge just having been turned up to full blast.
"We can do it." I reassured him even as I silently counted the days left before a final inspection by the state liquor board could take place in a facility that was still very much under construction.
Getting a liquor license in California requires some doing. There are extensive background checks required for each applicant as well as local zoning permit applications that must be approved or signed off. We routinely advise clients to give themselves four to six months lead time to get properly licensed and here we were, with one of the most high profile projects in Los Angeles’ history, and less than sixty days to make sure that everything was in place.
The Walt Disney Concert Hall began as the dream of Lillian Disney, widow of Walt Disney, in 1987 when she donated $50 million dollars to provide a new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. By 1996 the only thing to show for her generosity was a gaping concrete garage. The stalled project came back to life in 1999 when new fundraising efforts by Eli Broad began to pay off and construction on the concert hall resumed.
In spite of the delays, this was a development for which no expense had been spared. The project sported a virtual who’s who of celebrated names. World famous architect Frank Gehry, who had delivered his futuristic plans for the metal clad creation in 1991, was back in the saddle. The hall acoustics were under the supervision of internationally renowned Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics. The visual centerpiece of the hall, its grand pipe organ—a virtual explosion of pipes—built at a cost of just over three million dollars, was a collaboration between Gehry’s sculptural genius and the musical brilliance of one of America's finest organ builders, Manuel Rosales. So, naturally, the food and beverage concession was awarded to the highly regarded Patina Group, and Patina’s founder, celebrity chef Joachim Splichal, moved his flagship restaurant from it’s famed Hollywood location to the curving and shimmering canopy of Disney Hall in downtown LA. Needless to say, we were honored to find ourselves selected to participate in this project.
Our work consisted of managing the many details involved in filing an application with the State of California Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) on behalf of our client; everything from providing the ABC with detailed plans showing the exact location of each area where alcoholic beverages would be served to meeting on-site with state investigators to locating a liquor license for transfer to our client.
While most of our projects involve restaurants with a single kitchen, dining room and maybe a patio, this grand edifice wandered over 375 rooms, billowed through 5 floors and spread over 3 acres. To complicate matters, because there are few right angles in Gehry’s architecture, the plans alone took us over a month to simplify so that ABC investigators could digest them at glance.
Adding to the usual snags connected with licensing a business for alcohol sales was uncertainty over which land use agency, city or county, had control over the land. After extensive phone calls and e-mail exchanges with attorneys from city, county and state, we were able to unravel the mystery to the satisfaction of the ABC. It so happens that the Walt Disney Concert Hall sits on a tiny island of County land encircled by an ocean-like City of Los Angeles.
Anyone who has ever worked with contractors knows that many times things don’t go as planned and this $274 million dollar project was no exception. The logistics involved in pulling off a structure as unique and ambitious as Gehry's design resulted in challenges for everyone involved requiring that we use every trick in the book. From putting on hard hats and plotting a course around exposed electrical cables when inspecting the site to working late into the evening, we made sure this amazing world-class building rapidly rising on Los Angeles' Bunker Hill was ready in time.
Finally, after weeks of concentrated effort, on the morning of October 2, 2003 the other phone call I’d been waiting for came in - the liquor license approval had just been granted in Sacramento!
Our office staff breathed a collective sigh. Since the official dedication ceremony for the Walt Disney Concert Hall was scheduled for October 20, 2003 we were able to bring the license in a good two weeks ahead of schedule.
Today many toast the Walt Disney Concert Hall with its sweeping lines and bold angles as the "crown jewel" of Los Angeles architecture, an opinion that we certainly share. And even though our staff has helped thousands of businesses obtain liquor licenses, each with its own unique and often fascinating storyline, working on the Walt Disney Concert Hall assignment was truly an exceptional experience. Indeed, licensing this historic landmark structure stands out as the "crown jewel" success for The American Liquor License Exchange.
Jon C Mejia has been a consultant to the food and beverage industry since 1984. He can be reached at 800-711-2114 ext. 350. To find our more about The American Liquor License Exchange please visit www.Amlex.com