×

BBQ Joint Gets Liquor License After Board Scrutiny

  • Jesse Filiault takes a measurement while working on the entryway for the new location of Wicked Awesome BBQ in White River Junction, Vt., on Sept. 20, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jesse Filiault puts the finishing touches on a kitchen door window at the new location for Wicked Awesome BBQ in White River Junction, Vt., on Sept. 20, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Wicked Awesome BBQ will be opening in a space under renovation in the former Thrifty Car Rental building, next to McDonald's, in White River Junction, Vt., on Sept. 20, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • David McInnis of Wicked Awesome BBQ cuts sausage in East Thetford, Vt., on June 23, 2016. With him is his wife, Debby Fennelly. The sausage was for his stand at the Nighthawks game in Hartford, Vt. McInnis is opening up a restaurant in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2017

White River Junction — The Hartford Liquor Control Board approved a liquor license for a new barbecue restaurant off Sykes Mountain Avenue, but not before expressing concern about the owner’s marijuana-related criminal convictions.

David McInnis, master chef and owner of Wicked Awesome BBQ, holds a medical marijuana card, but has been charged with marijuana-related crimes three times in the past, including in August 2016 near the site of his existing Thetford location.

McInnis told the Hartford Liquor Control Board, which is made up of the same members as the Selectboard, that he plans to close the Thetford location while opening a 32-seat barbecue restaurant at the former site of a Thrifty Car rental on 93 Beswick Drive.

Last week, the board voted, 4-2, to grant McInnis a first class liquor license, with Chairman Dick Grassi, a longtime enforcement agent with the Vermont Liquor Board, joining Mike Morris in voting against the decision.

McInnis said he plans to restrict his customers to a strict three-drink maximum, and will ensure that the liquor license is used responsibly.

“There will never be an issue that you hear of as we try to build a successful business,” he said.

Simon Dennis, Rebecca White, Dennis Brown and Alan Johnson all voted in favor of the license, though Brown and Johnson said they had mixed feelings.

“We have to decide who in society can be trusted with the dispensing of alcohol,” Johnson said. “There’s definitely some concern in my mind from all of this information about maybe your ability to keep track of and adhere to the letter of the law and the safety of your patrons when you’re serving alcohol.”

On his application, McInnis voluntarily disclosed a 1989 conviction for possession of marijuana, and the August 2016 charge in Thetford. As part of its routine review of liquor license applications, the board asks the fire and police departments for input into their decision. Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten responded to the board’s request for more information with a copy of an affidavit from Thetford Police Officer Stuart Rogers, who stated that, during a 7 p.m. traffic stop, he smelled marijuana coming from the vehicle McInnis was driving.

After McInnis declined to allow Rogers to search the car, a search warrant found more than nine ounces of marijuana, 12 empty sandwich bags and a digital scale in a cooler in the car.

McInnis, whose status as a medical marijuana patient allows him to legally possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana, was charged with a felony and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in Windsor Superior Court in December.

McInnis told the Selectboard he had just purchased the marijuana for personal use, and that he used the scale to measure out marijuana for his own consumption.

“I do not use my medical marijuana out of my house,” McInnis said. “It never leaves my house once it’s there. I use it at home at night to alleviate some of the pain once I’ve been on my feet all day.”

Kasten wrote in a memo to the board that, according to Thetford police, they had received information that marijuana was being distributed from the Wicked Awesome location in Thetford, but that Hartford police had no information to verify or contradict that information.

During questioning by Grassi, McInnis acknowledged a third marijuana-related drug charge that was dismissed and referred to court diversion in 2007.

“What gives me pause is that there were three offenses for illegal drug use. ... I will not vote to support the license,” Grassi told McInnis.

Denise Anderson, a business lawyer who has helped McInnis with his business filings, spoke on his behalf during the meeting and said he had been scrupulous in following the letter of the law in areas like payroll and tax codes.

“We’re doing things the way we should be doing things and that’s because he plans on being in business here for a heck of a long time and he plans on being successful,” Anderson said.

McInnis, a native of Winthrop, Mass., declined to comment on Tuesday, but told the Valley News earlier this summer that he is spending roughly $250,000 to renovate the building and purchase the kitchen equipment he needs. On Tuesday, contractors were busily working on the electrical system in the kitchen and applying varnish to a gleaming wooden bar and serving counter.

McInnis announced the Thetford location would be closing on the Thetford Listserv this week, noting that the new restaurant “will have an expanded menu as well as ice cold beer and wine.” The Thetford location’s final day will be on Oct. 1, according to the posting.

“We are very excited about our new adventure and hope to see you all at the new place,” he wrote.

The license application included a copy of McInnis’ lease with Lowell Spillane, which imposes further requirements on the proposed barbecue business.

Under the lease, Spillane requires McInnis to carry $1 million in “dram shop” insurance if he sells alcohol.

The lease also holds Wicked Awesome to a non-compete agreement that was originally signed between the neighboring McDonald’s and Tamarack Services of White River, under which no tenant of the property can run a quick service food establishment selling “ground meat, meat substitute or combination of ground meat or meat substitute, or any other type of meat products served in sandwich form.”

As a result, Wicked Awesome is required to “offer as the primary method of service ... for all meal times, food and drink orders taken by and served by a waiter or waitress at the customer’s table.”

The McDonald’s franchise is owned by The Napoli Group, where Bill Miller, marketing supervisor, said on Tuesday it was the first he’d heard of the marijuana issue, and was therefore unable to comment.

Morris said on Tuesday he had never seen a liquor license receive that level of scrutiny before.

“I voted the way I felt the most people in Hartford would have voted,” he said.

After the motion passed, Grassi said the board would forward the application to the Vermont Liquor Control Board for review.

“We wish you the best as a food license, either way,” he said.

Wicked Awesome Barbecue’s liquor license application is one of about 75 pending before the Vermont Liquor Board.

Deputy Commissioner Gary Kessler said on Wednesday that the state board does its own criminal background check for all applicants, and that the results of that check could lead to further scrutiny of an application. Kessler said the board received the application on Monday, and that the variability of processing time made it unclear whether it would be considered during the board’s next meeting in October.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.