ROCKVILLE — To help the Montgomery County community learn more about the role and purpose of the government agency and wholesaler, Department of Liquor Control (DLC), and its current and future initiatives along with its policies and support for local craft distributors, Montgomery County Councilmember Craig Rice hosted a “Get to Know Your Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control” forum on Feb. 6 at the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville.
Rice provided brief historical context on the regulation of the sale, manufacturing and distribution of alcohol in Maryland. Montgomery County is one of 17 controlled jurisdictions nationwide, he said, meaning that county law requires establishments licensed to sell alcohol must purchase beer, wine and liquor from the DLC warehouse in Gaithersburg.
Some of the licensees attending the forum composed of local restaurateurs and owners of local bars and alcoholic beverage shops – described the problems they had with the DLC and local government, while DLC staff members came to their organization’s defense when responding to the licensees’ concerns.
The two-and-a-half hour forum consisted of presentations by Rice and DLC Director Bob Dorfman about the agency’s mission, philanthropy and initiatives; a Q&A session followed.
Rice, a Democrat representing District 2, said the DLC has value to the Montgomery County community, and characterized the organization as an arm of economic development. He also underlined the reasons he held the forum.
“I think it’s incredibly important understanding the history of a lot of animosity between business owners and our Department of Liquor Control,” said Rice, who affirmed the animosity the county council and DLC historically have.
“As of recent, things have gotten much better,” said Rice, adding that he saw this as an opportunity for the DLC to specify the good things it is doing in the county and for the department to establish a better relationship with the community and its stakeholders.
“It was time for us to have a sit-down meeting face-to-face where folks could express some of the concerns and ask questions of DLC, and DLC could also talk about direction that they’re hoping to bring the department into,” Rice added.
Arash Tafakor, a DLC licensee of the organization, was one of the more outspoken individuals at the forum, criticizing the agency and local government for creating what he considered an unfair situation for the licensees.
“I want everyone to know that DLC generated $142 million in wholesale from our hard work. If you average their markup, which is anywhere from 25 to 35 percent, that means they made $35 million from our hard work,” said Tafakor, the owner of Downtown Crown Wine and Beer in Gaithersburg.
“We are the unheard voice. You guys do not listen to us, you do not come to us, you do not ask us our opinion, and yet, we are giving the county $35 million in profit off of our hard work.”
In Tafakor’s assessment, DLC is run more like a business and does what is best only for itself rather than for its licensees.
“Why does the county council continually ignore us, but does everything for other industries in this county?” he asked. “Why can’t the county council help us when we’re generating $35 million in profit to you guys?”
Rice calmly replied to the questions and concerns.
“When you say that we don’t listen to you, what I think that you’re saying more is that, I’m not doing what you want me to do… There’s a difference between not listening and us not agreeing as to the outcome and how we move forward,” Rice said in response to Takafor.
“You also didn’t acknowledge the fact that DLC has changed. That spearhead, in terms of change, happened as a result of us hearing from people like yourself.”
A former private sector businessman, Dorfman said he has partnered with Councilmember Tom Hucker (District 5) to hold a similar forum, and suspects there will be many more forums in the near future. The DLC is working hard to make its 1,100 licensees successful, he said.
“I felt it was a really good meeting. I felt we got really good feedback,” said Dorfman, who has been the director of the department since 2017.
“I fully expected that we were going to hear what people’s concerns are, but that was the purpose of this and for us then to also educate people about why we do what we do, and to give them a sense of what we are trying to accomplish in the future to make their lives better.”
Other points of emphasis during the discussion were advertising, licensing and privatization. According to Rice, Dorfman hopes to put together quarterly listening sessions to inform the community and explore ways to properly address the needs and requests of its businesses.
“We like to see what Councilman Rice and the Department of Liquor Control has to say about the improvements they’re going to make,” said Takafor, also the president of Montgomery County Licensed Beverages Association, in an interview after the forum.
“I’m really glad that we came. Councilman Rice and the DLC were very receptive to our questions, and I think this was a pretty productive meeting,” he added.
Takafor said he hopes that the DLC and local licensees will continue a healthy exchange of ideas to eventually come to a consensus.
“Hopefully (we will continue to have) more-productive meetings and more-productive discussions, and hopefully we can make this county a better place and come to a compromise.”