Drink Tax: Bar owners trying to soften the blow for patrons 

Some dropping prices, others want to drop the county executive to make customers feel better

The bitter taste in many a barfly's or bartender's mouth at the drink tax is evident all over town:

Posters at Villa Reale Downtown that have hung for months advertising beer specials now have "plus Onorato Tax" hastily scrawled in marker, and the draft-list chalkboard at Kelly's in East Liberty calls out County Executive Dan Onorato as well. Newly un-round prices can leave a drinker with a pocket full of unwieldy "Onorato nickels," as some tavern habitués have called them, the morning after. One local bar owner has even challenged Onorato to a boxing match.

But a few spots are taking real steps to alleviate the burden on thirsty Pittsburghers.

Glenn Benigni owns Fat Heads Saloon on the South Side, a spot that prides itself on a wide beer selection. For the first week of the year, the restaurant simply ate the tax and didn't pass the burden on to customers.

"It went over well with customers," Benigni says, adding that plenty of people came in just because they heard about the break. But the store couldn't keep it up past Jan. 8. "It's hard to do that. You have the price set for a reason; you have to run your business profitably."

At the three locations of Sharp Edge, one of the country's best and best-known sources for Belgian beers, owner Jeff Walewski has taken the opposite tack of other places.

"I decided to reduce the price to try to cushion the blow for the customer," he says. Base prices have gone down by 5 percent; customers and the restaurant split the new tax.

The tax, he says, has been a huge hassle to institute. Sharp Edge locations were closed on New Years' Day, the first day of the tax. Employees stayed busy, however, reprinting menus and reprogramming the cash registers.

Walewski says after he decided to lower his prices, it occurred to him that it was a way to keep a little more money out of the hands of the county, but it wasn't meant to send a message to council. "I realized they would get a little bit less, but it was more for the customers' benefit," he says.

Reaping the benefits of a few drafts and wings in the East Liberty location were Brian Hutchinson and Benjamin Graves, students at the nearby Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

"I appreciate the gesture, but I think it's unfortunate they have to do that," said Hutchinson. "It cuts into their profit margin. It's an undue burden, but they're helping us share the cost. The first reason I'll go somewhere is the quality. I won't hold it against them if they don't lower their prices."

"It makes me more likely to order a pop or water with a meal," Graves said.

"As lovers of beer, it hurts us where we hurt most," Hutchinson said.

Another patron, Chris Adamski, says his love of transit trumps his love of cheap drinks. But is happy to pay a little less at Sharp Edge. "I find it pretty cool," he says. "I'm in support of the drink tax because I'm in support of transportation. It's the beer drinker that loses." But, he says, "What's 50 cents when it comes to the 500 line staying?"


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