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What's in a Name? Birmingham Bistro Hits Roadblock Over 'Bar' Moniker

One of 2012's bistro applicants, Social, changed its name at the City Commission's meeting Monday night after two commissioners said they wouldn't vote for the restaurant with "bar" in the name.

There was a moment at the Birmingham City Commission meeting Monday night when it looked like the approval of Social, an applicant for a 2012 bistro license, was in jeopardy.

Ultimately, the tapas-style restaurant — which plans to open at 225 E. Maple Rd. — received a unanimous vote of approval from a panel of five commissioners (Commissioners Stuart Sherman and Scott Moore were absent), but it was only after Social's owner and operator, Chef Zack Sklar, promised one thing: to change the name.

Social was one of two bistro applicants to come before the City Commission on Monday night; Market, a Mediterrean restaurant to be owned by 's Kristin and Joe Bongiovianni at 470 N. Old Woodward Ave., also received approval of its final site plans.

out of a field of five in October as part of a .

Under Birmingham's 2007 bistro ordinance, only two bistro licenses are approved each year. Bistros are defined as having seasonal sidewalk seating, a full-service kitchen and no more than 65 seats inside.

At the time Social first came before the City Commission, four out of seven commissioners said Social was their favorite of the five prospective bistro concepts.

Commissioners debate 'bar' in restaurant name

Social plans to move into the former location and the adjacent empty space on East Maple Road. Sklar, the founder of Cutting Edge Cuisine, plans to renovate the space and adjoining alley with plans for outdoor dining in the alley and on a rooftop deck.

But the problem wasn't with Sklar's plans; it was with his first pick for a name. The bistro originally proposed to call itself Social Kitchen, then changed the name to Social Kitchen and Bar during the Planning Board stage.

Sklar said he added "and Bar" to the name in order to help customers and passers-by associate the establishment as a restaurant. He told commissioners that when he told people about Social Kitchen, they weren't sure what it meant.

"Adding 'bar' makes the restaurant name make sense," Sklar said. Social has plans for a bar with 10 seats, comparable with other bistros around town.

However, Commissioner Rackeline Hoff pointed out that the intent of the city's bistro ordinance was to encourage Birmingham's prospective restaurateurs to focus on food, not alcohol. She mentioned that other bistros have taken "bar" out of their name, including the now-defunct Cole Street Kitchen and Bar. Luxe Bar & Grille, while still keeping "bar" in its name, took the word off its North Old Woodward storefront when it opened in 2010.

While city commissioners typically don't dictate details such as a business's name, since a special land use permit is required for all bistros — and commissioners hold approval power of all such permits — commissioners can attach conditions to special land use permit approvals, Planning Director Jana Ecker said.

Sklar jumped in during commissioner discussion, insisting that he didn't want the name to become a deal breaker.

"This project is more important to me than the word 'bar' is to me," Sklar said.

Commissioners Tom McDaniel and Gordon Rinschler expressed their distaste at the conversation over the name, noting they cared more about the overall project than the name.

"We put the petitioner in a position where he had to agree with us," Rinschler said. "It's a shame that we got in a nit over such a little issue."

Mayor Mark Nickita agreed. While admitting that it's the city's responsibilty to preserve the intent of the original ordinance, Nickita said the City Commission shouldn't dictate how restaurateurs run their businesses.

"I don't want to hold you back from creativity and promoting yourself," he said.

Racer Boy January 11, 2012 at 02:52 PM
A great example of Government, once again, instituting meaningless roadblocks and requirements to the free enterprise system. Folks, this is exactly what is taking place on a national scale and it contributes to inability of our country to rebound from our economic dilemma. This sort of thinking has to stop. Please remember this when election time arrives in Birmingham and in the national election.
Clinton Baller January 12, 2012 at 03:40 AM
What official action did the commission take to insure no "bar" in the name? Did they approve a condition to the SLUP? Language in the bistro contract?
Chris Longe January 12, 2012 at 02:00 PM
It’s hard to imagine ANY rational reason Rackeline Hoff (and others) insisted on eliminating the word BAR from Social’s name – a condition for the newly approved KITCHEN (and BAR). As if offended by the word-bar? There is not a word that properly describes what is clearly (aside from obvious 1st amendment issues) an outlandish overreaching abuse of imagined authority any commissioner has shown...since the Lanzetta days...and exhibits a corrupted sense of power. Not only was it abusive, offensive, small minded but embarrassing that – all of a sudden (one can only assume) the word ‘bar’ is offensive? I suppose Huck Finn, Catcher in the Rye and other such items are now at risk of being edited in a similar fashion?
Laura Houser (Editor) January 12, 2012 at 03:45 PM
Clinton: The commission approved the SLUP with the name "Social," making the new name a condition of the SLUP.
ClassAct4 January 12, 2012 at 03:57 PM
Is a "bistro" a "bar?" What clientele are attracted to a "bar" versus a "bistro"? Shades of the Blue Martini? It's all about perceptions and appealing to residents that live nearby. If I can say I helped approve a bistro in your backyard rather than a bar, then all is well, right? Semantics . . .
ClassAct4 January 12, 2012 at 04:04 PM
Bar = drinking establishment; Bistro = quaint eating establishment. What will be the sales ratio of food to liquor? I think it is appropriate to establish boundaries for Bistros, especially those that border residential areas.
Racer Boy January 12, 2012 at 04:33 PM
All reasonable stuff, but what does any of that have to do with the Government telling you what you are allowed name your business? If you meet the law as written then you are good to go...period. The personal "feelings" of government officials have no place in private business. If the Government wants to control names put it in the law.
@LexKuhne January 12, 2012 at 05:18 PM
It appears that the SLUP process allows the commission to approve a name. The issue is: should it have? What was the reason to do so? What was the goal that Rackeline had in mind? Is there empirical evidence on the record that removing "Bar" from the name would achieve that goal, or was it just a feeling? The article indicates that the discussion among the commissioners was anecdotal. Many times, the business name is the spark of the entrepreneur's vision, and to baselessly change it is unfair and un-supportive of a new business. Here, the applicant even got the idea from Planning's review to add "Bar" -- not as an enticement, it appears, but as full disclosure, so that someone who wants to avoid a place serving liquor can do so. The bistro ordinance exists, and has brought investment and patrons into tax-paying establishments that were empty locations. The commission, however, too often acts ashamed of bistros, forcing upon applicants who want to bet on Birmingham (and have already spent thousands to get to the final approval stage) gut-based, anecdotal, last minute, ad hoc solutions looking for a problem. Like this.
DS January 14, 2012 at 01:57 PM
I wonder what the motives are behind eliminating the word bar from the name of an establishment that meets all of the outrageously restrictive bistro requirements. I guess Birmingham is to "classy" for such ordinary language. Alcohol is as easily consumed in a bistro and a name will have little impact on that. Fernale and RO continue to become more appealing!
Chris Longe January 16, 2012 at 03:48 PM
Refreshing to see overwhelming support (Patch poll) and SANITY for leaving 'bar' in Social kitchen (& bar)? Would it be too much to expect that same sort of sanity to be exhibited by the two City Commissioners that insisted 'bar' be removed from the name of Social kitchen & ? Yup !
Monica March 13, 2012 at 06:03 PM
I think this statement says it all "including the now-defunct Cole Street Kitchen and Bar"
dr big June 24, 2012 at 09:04 PM
expected of birmingham, the most business and ultimately consumer unfriendly city maybe they should make the one hour parking meters 15 minutes and 24/7 that would really increase the retail turnover there.

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