Rebranding from an urban nightclub to "Chattanooga's premier country bar and grill" didn't keep a Southside business out of trouble.
Coyote Jack's Saloon and the Living Room at 1400 Cowart St. — formerly Bella Vita and The Ultra Lounge — had its beer license suspended for one week from March 2-9 by the Chattanooga Beer Board Thursday morning.
The suspension came after Chattanooga Police Officer John Collins told the beer board that during an inspection at 1 a.m. Feb. 5, there were women under age 21 inside Coyote Jack's, and the club had let in 935 people — when the fire code says the capacity is 518 people.
"I checked a total of eight I.D.s, of those eight, four of them were using fake IDs," Collins said. "They were also using a basement area that was not approved for use."
Collins said he got a couple of anonymous tips about overcrowding at Coyote Jack's Saloon, which had its grand opening on Dec. 2.
Fire Capt. Chuck Hartung told the beer board "we found several fire violations" and that the fire department would inspect Coyote Jack's Saloon at noon today.
The saloon's General Manager Randy Paulsen struck a defiant tone when he addressed the beer board.
Paulsen argued that a contractor misled him about the occupancy of the building, which was remodeled so a basement storage room has become a game room with pool and darts, and that the fake IDs that Officer Collins found were so good that they could have fooled an ID scanning device.
Not buying arguments
But beer board members shot holes through those arguments.
"Isn't it the city's law that you have to have the occupancy posted on the wall?" beer board Chairman Christopher Keene asked Paulsen, who acknowledged that, yes, the occupancy is posted.
"I was misled by a contractor that we had a greater capacity," Paulsen said a moment later.
"It was on the wall, so you weren't misled," Keene interrupted.
While Paulsen said the fake IDs were good enough to fool a scanner, he admitted that the doormen at Coyote Jack's Saloon weren't scanning IDs that night. He said the battery had died inside the saloon's iPad-style ID scanning device, and a new battery could only be ordered online.
"The night of this violation, nobody was scanned?" Keene asked.
"No," Paulsen replied.
'Doing all it can to check IDs'
Paulsen gave the beer board four fake IDs that he said he confiscated after Feb. 5, and board members passed them around to see how impressive the counterfeiting was.
"I think this establishment is doing all it can to check IDs," beer board member Trevor Atchley said, noting that ID scanners aren't mandatory.
Board member Dan Mayfield agreed with that, but he didn't want to let Coyote Jack's Saloon slide on exceeding its occupancy.
"To me, I'm very concerned about the fire code violations," Mayfield said.
According to the business' website, the top floor is the Living Room with a restaurant, three bars and dance floor; the main floor holds Coyote Jack's Saloon with an upscale restaurant, two bars and a dance floor; and the downstairs is Coyote Jack's Underground, with a full bar, food, pool tables and games.
Paulsen told the board the downstairs gaming area hasn't been used since Feb. 5, and that the saloon was "taking every necessary precaution" to prevent underage drinking and overcrowding.
But the board voted 7-1, with Atchley opposed, to suspend beer sales for a week.
Saloon owned by Mayor's uncle
The new saloon has the same owners as Bella Vita: Ronnie Berke and Tammy Taylor. Berke, an attorney at Berke, Berke & Berke, is Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's uncle and works in the law firm with Andy Berke's father, Marvin Berke.
Ronnie Berke didn't return a call late Thursday afternoon, and he hasn't returned calls over the past few months regarding the bar and nightclub.
According to beer board records, Ronnie Berke and Tammy Taylor lived together when they signed a contract in September 2014 to lease the 14,866-square-foot building for $11,000 a month from Cow Art LLC. The contract gives Berke and Taylor an option to buy the property for $1.5 million.
Cow Art LLC's registered owner is Mike Monen who, with wife Taylor Monen and their high school friend Chad Walldorf, launched Sticky Fingers Ribhouse that has a dozen locations in the Southeast. The Monens also founded the restaurants Urban Stack, Taco Mamacita and Clyde's.
Paulsen's combative stance toward the beer board Thursday morning included noting that the violation early this month accidentally had last year's date on it.
"Interesting. I like to have my facts straight," the saloon's manager told the beer board, which meets in City Council chambers.
Officer Collins came back to the podium and said that, yes, he had gotten the year wrong on the citation. But Collins told Paulsen, "To point it out was very petty."
Updated Jan. 16 at 11 p.m. with more details to match the January 17th print edition of the Times Free Press.