Catering practices under review after 5 wounded in shooting at D.C. club

January 28, 2013

The investigation into a weekend shooting at a Northeast D.C. nightspot now has authorities probing a broader question: whether some establishments are using catering companies to skirt liquor licensing laws and operate as bars under the city’s radar.

DC Soundstage, where police say five people were shot early Saturday morning, does not have a permit to sell alcohol or to prepare food. It operates as a billiard hall open for private parties and events, and it is allowed to sell dinner and alcohol using a hired caterer’s liquor license.

District authorities now want to determine whether DC Soundstage and other establishments are using caterers to operate more like bars and restaurants — with regular hours, menus and drink specials — than like event venues.

“If that is the case, that is of huge concern,” said Bill Hager, a spokesman for the District’s Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration. By avoiding the rules, officials say, establishments could operate outside the scrutiny of inspectors who regulate security and underage drinking.

“The agency is concerned from a public safety perspective that caterers operate within the requirements of their license, which requires the serving of prepared food at events, and not as a pop-up nightclub,” Hager said.

One of the owners of DC Soundstage, Rodney Manley, declined to comment Monday. Andrew Harris, the owner of the catering company hired for Friday night’s event at DC Soundstage, could not be reached, and several telephone numbers listed for his business, Roadside Cafe, were not operational.

D.C. police are taking quick action against DC Soundstage, in the 2400 block of Benning Road NE. Chief Cathy L. Lanier on Saturday invoked her emergency powers to shutter bars and clubs she deems a public safety threat for 96 hours.

Lanier’s orders bar alcohol distributors from DC Soundstage for four days, after which a public hearing will be held to determine whether further sanctions are warranted. Lanier is also urging the alcohol regulation board to revoke the liquor license of Harris’s catering company, which is located on Benning Road three blocks from DC Soundstage.

The police chief temporarily shuttered 15 clubs or bars last year; this is her first in 2013, and the first time a caterer has been targeted. A date for action on Lanier’s request regarding Roadside Cafe’s liquor license has not been set.

The shooting occurred about 2:30 a.m. Saturday when police said a patron who had been shoved or bumped as the establishment was closing opened fire from the doorway. A police report called the shooting indiscriminate, saying the gunman was “firing a handgun into the crowd.”

Two people suffered serious injuries, with wounds to the back and to the chest. No arrests have been made.

Tracy Thompson, a 45-year-old part-time photographer who works for the D.C. Department of Public Works, said a bullet skirted his spine and came out his side; he said another remains lodged in his leg. Thompson said a co-worker hired him to take pictures of a birthday party at DC Soundstage on Friday night.

Thompson said a fight broke out as he was packing his equipment. The fracas spilled outside, Thompson said, and then he saw a man with a nickel-plated handgun standing in the doorway “firing into the club. I took cover. One bullet hit me in my back, another in my leg.”

Thompson said he doesn’t know why the fight started.

DC Soundstage’s Web site includes a full menu, describing regular hours and daily drink specials, which Hager said gives the impression that alcohol is being sold “in a perpetual kind of operation.” It encourages potential customers to “hold your event here,” whether it be karaoke, a school auction or college reunion. It also advertises live bands, DJs, billiards and a spacious dance hall.

Hager said the owners of DC Soundstage have applied for a liquor license, which is pending. He said bars sometimes use caterers to serve alcohol at such times, but typically for only a few days immediately after applications are approved.

What DC Soundstage appears to have been doing, however, would be unprecedented, Hager said. An inquiry into DC Soundstage could be completed by Thursday, though a wider look into catering practices could take longer.

The rules governing such business are not clear-cut. Although catered events must emphasize food over alcohol, there is no established ratio. And Hager said catered events are not limited to private invitees. Still, he said the intent of the regulations is not to let caterers effectually run a tavern.

The alcohol regulation board said the catering company was closed for about a year before its owners reclaimed its liquor license Thursday.

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

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