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Minors cleared to serve alcohol at restaurants, grocery stores

Adam Danilowski works a checkout counter at Caputo's Fresh Market

People 18 to 20 years old would be allowed to sell beer, wine and liquor at grocery stores and restaurants under a rule advanced Wednesday by a City Council committee. | Sun-Times file photo

The days of waiting in line at a Chicago supermarket to buy a six pack or a bottle of wine while the kid cashier calls his boss are about to end.

To speed up retail sales and reduce youth unemployment, the City Council’s License Committee advanced an ordinance Wednesday that would allow people between 18 and 20 years old to serve liquor in restaurants and stock and sell unopened bottles of booze at supermarkets. The legal drinking age in Illinois is 21.

They still won’t be allowed to open bottles and cans, pour or mix drinks. But they will be able to serve and sell it after completing a state-sponsored course about “responsible alcohol service consumption.”

The ordinance was co-sponsored by Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), the owner of Ann Sather’s Restaurants, and by Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus.

“As we were told by some of our colleagues, ‘They’re drinking anyway.’ So, let’s educate ’em, and let’s make sure that they understand their responsibilities,” Tunney said.

Tunney noted that, when he was 18, he was serving liquor without server training.

“This is really a logical step and an incremental step about how do we provide more opportunities for our youth,” he said.

“I wouldn’t even say it’s a no-brainer because we might have some hiccups on it. But if we need to go back and tweak it, we’ll go back and tweak it.”

License Committee Chairman Emma Mitts (37th) said the ordinance doesn’t send a mixed message to young people.

“It’s not like they’re drinking alcohol. We’re not supporting youth drinking alcohol. We’re simply saying we want to make business more . . . expedient and [provide] good customer service without having to have you wait in line,” Mitts said.

Last year, the jobless rate among young adults in Chicago stood at 58.2 percent, with the highest concentration of unemployment in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Sawyer said the ordinance could make a dent in those figures, while speeding up lines at Chicago supermarkets.

“I know a lot of those who have . . . been inconvenienced by having to wait until a cashier brings a manager over just to ring up one or two items in your grocery cart. It just doesn’t make sense,” Sawyer said.

Ald. James Cappleman (46th) added, “I, too, get slowed down at the checkout lane at Target to buy alcohol. It seems ludicrous.”

If the goal is creating summer jobs, Ald. Marty Quinn (13th) questioned why it doesn’t also apply to sports stadiums such as Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field.

“We’re talking about thousands of people” who could potentially serve as beer vendors, Quinn said.

Tunney explained why beer vendor jobs are off-limits to minors.

“It’s the same thing within restaurants. I can’t open a bottle of wine. I can’t be behind the bar. I can’t make the drink. I can’t take the top off of a bottle of beer. But you can serve,” Tunney said.

Tanya Triche Dawood, vice president and general counsel of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, noted that “many of our cashiers” are under 21. That forces constant stops and starts at the checkout line as managers are summoned to process liquor sales for under-21 cashiers.

“These few minutes can mean the difference between a customer putting the product back so they don’t have to wait or making the sale,” Triche Dawood wrote in a letter to Mitts.

“We want the checkout process to be as easy and time-efficient as it is to shop in the rest of the store . . . . This is a practical way that the city can . . . make it easier to do business while creating another avenue for 18- to 20-year-olds to get hired.”

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia noted that “many municipalities” have also permitted young adults to work as servers in full-service restaurants and sales people in “accessory-use packaged licensed stores.”

“This ordinance will create new jobs and widen the candidate pool for employers, simultaneously improving Chicago’s young adult unemployment rate and the racial disparity in employment within this group,” Toia wrote in a press release.