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Fili’s Pizza avoids potential loss of liquor license

Fili's Pizza is seen at 110 Osage Street in Bethel in March 2020.
Katie Basile
Fili's Pizza is seen at 110 Osage Street in Bethel in March 2020.

Fili’s Pizza, one of two restaurants in Bethel licensed to sell alcohol, has successfully avoided having that license protested by the city. The owners of the popular establishment told the Bethel City Council on April 23 that they have already taken serious steps to steer clear of future violations.

Under state law, restaurants in Alaska are not allowed to have higher receipts for alcohol sales than food sales. In 2022, Fili’s Pizza crossed that line by less than a percent.

Manager Daniel Allred said the restaurant is working hard to clean up its rough-and-tumble image and avoid future violations.

“My goal since I took over in February has been to get it to 60/40 food versus alcohol,” Allred said. “We have really kind of transitioned into more of a sports grill kind of idea, with some menu changes, and we added TVs. We're seeing a greater increase in families coming in, just an overall environment change.”

Allred and other representatives of Fili’s Pizza responded to nearly an hour and a half of questioning from council members regarding the restaurant’s 2022 violation of state law with respect to the ratio of alcohol to food sales. Fili’s state alcohol license is up for renewal, which happens every two years.

Jana Weltzin, an attorney representing Fili’s Pizza, flew in from Anchorage to defend the liquor license against Bethel City Council’s protest. She said the city’s protest of the alcohol license renewal would have a direct impact on the popular pizzeria.

“What you do tonight is going to make or break Fili’s Pizza,” Weltzin said.

She said a protest would likely go unchallenged by the state.

“I'll tell you my experience with the Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) board, and I represent a lot of liquor licensees, is they really care what the rural communities think about liquor establishments in their community,” Weltzin said. “So if you protest this license, I am 99.99% sure they're going to uphold your protest.”

Weltzin said a protest wouldn’t only impact Fili’s – it would also result in significant tax losses for the city, a portion of which go to fund social services and programs through the city’s Community Action Grant (CAG) program.

“In 2022, their beer and wine taxes were $123,000 and some change that went towards your community action grants,” Weltzin said.

Weltzin cited total tax figures from Fili’s Pizza, but only 20% of that tax is channeled into the community program.

Council member Rose Henderson pushed back at the idea echoed by the restaurant’s new manager that protesting the license renewal would guarantee the business’s closure.

“You can still stay open as a restaurant. It's just alcohol is another component to it. Right?” Henderson asked.

“Right. But we're talking about a reduction of 50% of the sales,” Allred responded.

Fili’s Pizza has faced its share of controversy in recent years, including a May 2023 notice of violation from the state citing reports the restaurant had “turned into more of a bar” and was over-serving patrons.

Nevertheless, the restaurant managed to keep its food to alcohol ratio in compliance in 2023, and avoided further actions.

On April 23, the real question before the Bethel City Council was whether a minor slip-up in 2022 – alcohol sales exceeding food sales by 0.68% – justified the protest.

Fili’s Pizza co-owner Sloane Unwin emphasized that the restaurant has no intention of doing business like a bar.

“Although we definitely didn't meet our quotas for 2022, we do feel that we attempt to comply with the intent of the law, which is to not act like a bar,” Unwin said. “If you see fit to vote, remove the objection to renewal, I am sure that our new manager Daniel will be able to help guide Fili’s back to being an upstanding member of Bethel’s business community.”

Prior to the final vote, councilmember Teresa Keller showed sympathy for the plight of Fili’s Pizza.

“They've been here for a long time. And it's not like they were, you know, grossly disregarding the rules,” Keller said. “I mean, if it was 30 percent food and 70 percent alcohol, that's just, that's a huge disregard.”

But council member Henderson held firm that Fili’s Pizza should be held accountable. She said a lack of action by the city would set a bad precedent, specifically when it comes to the other Bethel establishment licensed to sell beer and wine, Uncommon Pizza.

“There's rules put in place for a reason. The rule was broken. And that's what we need to go by,” Henderson said. “I don't think it would look well if we say, ‘It's okay. You can break the rules’ and then Uncommon’s gonna come with broken rules, and they're gonna say, ‘You said it was okay for them. And why can't it be okay for us?’”

Council member Henderson was ultimately the lone voice protesting the license, and the resolution failed 1 to 5.

Although the license is effectively renewed, it does not necessarily put Fili’s Pizza in the clear. The City of Bethel can request a review at any time of any existing liquor licenses if they believe a violation has occurred.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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