A steakhouse inside Denver International Airport that is Colorado’s highest-grossing restaurant must stop serving alcohol Tuesday after a judge refused to block a city order.
During an expedited hearing Monday, Denver District Court Judge Jill Dorancy ruled Timberline Steaks & Grille must comply with a June 9 order from the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses. Its liquor license suspension will last for 30 days, through Aug. 24.
“I feel really bad for the employees who have to go through this for 30 days,” Rod Tafoya, the restaurant’s owner, said outside the courtroom after Dorancy’s ruling. He accused Denver Police Department vice officers of “overzealous enforcement” and “sting operations.”
On Nov. 12, a Timberline waitress working her first day on the job served a Coors Light to an underage police cadet — the restaurant’s third such infraction in 15 months. City enforcers decided on a 30-day suspension since Timberline was a repeat offender.
Timberline sued to stop the punishment and Dorancy agreed July 13 to pause the city’s order for a dozen days until she could hear arguments Monday. Those arguments lasted about 75 minutes, as Timberline’s attorney urged Dorancy to allow the restaurant to keep selling liquor while its lawsuit challenging the city’s punishment plays out.
“This court should have an opportunity to make its own determination,” Steven Perfrement of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner said. “You need to have time to exercise your judgment.”
Perfrement called three witnesses: Tafoya, a Timberline manager named Paul Flores, and a bartender there, Neto Rozetta. Rozetta testified that 95 percent of his income comes from tips and 60 percent of those tips are from alcohol sales.
“It would be a big setback financially,” he said of a 30-day liquor license suspension. Rozetta said he and his wife, who works part-time, had to dip into their savings when the restaurant lost its liquor license for two weeks last year after the second offense. “So, this would affect my family a lot.”
Flores and Tafoya talked about the improvements Timberline has made since Nov. 12, such as enhanced training and the addition of ID scanners. They emphasized that the offending waitress was fired immediately, so a suspension only harms innocent employees.
A prosecutor with the Denver City Attorney’s Office urged Dorancy to deny Timberline any further reprieves and allow the 30-day suspension to go into effect Tuesday. She repeatedly reminded the judge that this was the restaurant’s third offense in 15 months.
“At this point, putting the blame on a few servers is not compelling,” Gennevieve St. Leger told Dorancy, calling liquor license violations at Timberline a “systemic failure.”
After the two sides made their closing arguments, Dorancy adjourned to her chambers for about 25 minutes. When she returned, she denied Timberline’s request for an injunction, saying, “This is the third offense. That is not in dispute.”
Perfrement asked if the suspension could be delayed until later this week, to give his client more time to prepare for the change. Dorancy told him simply, “No.”
After the court adjourned, Timberline employees who had come to testify or offer support for their restaurant huddled outside the courtroom, saying words of encouragement to Tafoya and wondering what’s next. Rozetta, the bartender, asked, “What are we going to do now?”
Timberline must post 2-foot-tall signs inside and outside the restaurant explaining its punishment. And it will have to close its bar for 45 days next year if it reoffends before then.
Airport records show Timberline earned $6.3 million in gross sales in the first five months of 2022. It routinely ranks among the top 100 highest-grossing independent restaurants in the country on an annual Restaurant Business Magazine list. In 2019, it was 69th with sales of $14.7 million. In 2020, it was 74th with $14.4 million. It pays 16 percent of its revenues to DIA.
Thirty-five to 40 percent of those sales are alcohol, according to Tafoya.