The legendary Sam Wo restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown has persisted through two years of pandemic-related restrictions, sky-high inflation and major declines in foot traffic.
But the Responsible Beverage Service (RBS) Training Act, a state law passed in 2017 and slated to go into effect in July, could pose an additional hurdle to relaunching their operations, said Steven Lee, the restaurant’s co-owner. Lee aspires to resume indoor dining service at the storied eatery in June.
RBS requires alcohol servers to go through a training and certification process focused on laws governing alcoholic beverages and the impact of alcohol on the body. The goal of the law is to promote safer consumption of alcoholic drinks and prevent service to underage or intoxicated patrons.
Lee, who also owns the Lion's Den Bar and Lounge in Chinatown, agrees with the law’s aim to bring more consistent training for workers who are serving alcohol. But with no options for training in Chinese, he’s said there’s a potential that his employees might be locked out of the opportunity to work.
“Especially among immigrant employees, even if they have some conversational English, they may not be able to take a course like this. That’s the problem with these rules: a lot of times they can be passed without people understanding their impact,” Lee said. “If they want us to enforce something, they at least have to make the resources available to us.”
After a one-year pandemic delay, California’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) is implementing the program in July with an estimated one million workers who take orders for alcoholic drinks, pour drinks, serve alcohol to patrons, or check IDs—as well as their managers—subject to the law. Previously employed workers are given until Aug. 31, and new hires are given a grace period of 60 days to register as an alcohol server, find and purchase a training course, and pass a test to obtain certification.
But with the deadline rapidly approaching, only around 22,000 alcohol servers were successfully certified as of May 9, leaving 98% of outstanding workers with just weeks remaining to secure certification.
Pete Downs, the president of Family Winemakers of California, which represents small wine producers in the state, said it doesn’t take a mathematician to see the disconnect there. Core to the issue is a serious bottleneck in the training process, according to Downs.
“There’s a million people that need to get trained by July and there’s less than 50 trainers, so I’ve been urging my members to get on it sooner rather than later,” Downs said. “There’s certainly open questions on what the ABC is going to do if they still have hundreds of thousands of people that are yet to be trained.”
So far, the ABC has approved just 35 trainers to educate the hundreds of thousands of servers who still need to be certified, including just three that provide courses in Spanish. The law itself says that courses must be offered in English and Spanish “at a minimum,” and ABC said it is encouraging training providers to offer RBS training in other languages. But the agency has not yet received any applications from providers who would offer courses in languages other than English and Spanish.
Jaime Taylor, the ABC’s licensing division chief, said the organization is working with training providers to handle the “potential surge” of servers expected in the coming months and prepping for the hundreds of thousands of tests the agency itself will have to administer.
“All I can say is that it is something we’ve been planning for,” Taylor said. “Our IT team is making sure we have a scalable product that can handle the number of servers that we anticipate.”
John Hinman, a San Francisco attorney specializing in beverage issues, was blunt in his assessment of the law.
“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Hinman said. He foresees a wave of liability lawsuits tied to the legislation in the coming months, regardless of the agency’s enforcement strategy.
“For example, if a customer gets in an automobile accident and is served by someone not trained and certified, the question is whether the establishment is now liable for that particular accident,” Hinman said. “That question will have to be decided by the courts.”
Failing to comply with the training requirements means a business could be subject to disciplinary action through the ABC’s administrative process, which could lead to their liquor license being revoked.
John Carr, an ABC spokesman, said the agency recognizes that the industry needs time to acclimate to new requirements and is therefore taking “an education-first approach” to enforcement.
“The department prefers education over discipline for newly enacted laws. Our goal is to bring compliance among the industry,” he said. ABC did not provide a timeline for when enforcement measures will be eventually enacted.
Maria Moreno, a community organizer with the Restaurant Opportunities Center, said her organization and the clients she works with have received little to no outreach about the new law and its requirements.
She compared the law and its requirements to the ServSafe food handler certification—with a key distinction. Tests for the ServSafe certification are offered in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean.
“Whatever outreach is being done is clearly not enough,” Moreno said. “There should be ads being run, and there should be grassroots outreach to organizations like mine, particularly if you have a consequence that could impact a business owner or have someone lose their job as a result.”
Ben Bleiman, president of the SF Bar Owner Alliance, said he’s concerned that communities who have not been following the issue closely could be left in the lurch when the law is enacted.
“We’re talking about thousands of people here and the ABC didn’t even bother to put it in their language,” Bleiman said. “I mean, when I post something in the breakroom I have to put in more languages than they did.”
Hinman, who expects a new flood of client inquiries related to the law, said it might just be the thing to show him the door after a four-decade career in the legal industry.
“Honestly, I’m ready to retire,” he said. “I don’t need this, nobody knows how to try or defend these cases, and the ABC itself doesn’t know what the standard is going to be.”
Kevin Truong can be reached at email@example.com