Plenty of Calgary bars have claimed to have the city’s best karaoke or largest dance floor. “Calgary’s safest bar,” in contrast, is a less common boast. But with the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission’s Best Bar None program’s arrival in town, the city’s roughly 300 snappily titled Class A Minors-Prohibited bars can now compete for this distinction as well.
First introduced in Manchester in 2003, the Best Bar None program has since spread to over 100 towns and cities in the U.K., and came to Edmonton in 2010. Fifty-six Calgary venues applied for accreditation earlier this year, and 29 received it in May. By evaluating applicants on a series of standards for safe operations and responsible management, the voluntary program aims to reduce alcohol-related harm, reward good practice and provide safety-conscious bar goers with better information on their options.
“That’s why the program was brought here in the first place,” says AGLC spokesperson Tatjana Laskovic. “To improve the safety of licensed premises, and to have that positive measure in place that really tells patrons that these are the places that have worked on improving safety and customer service, and patrons can know that these are the venues that will provide them with a safe night out.”
To earn Best Bar None accreditation, which lasts for a year, bars had to meet a series of “essential” criteria. Meeting additional “desired” and “bonus” criteria made them eligible for awards. Having a written policy on patrons caught carrying weapons, for instance, is an essential criterion, while having surveillance cameras is a desired one and using metal detectors or other scanning devices is a bonus.
Provincial liquor regulations already require bars to meet many of the essential criteria. General manager David Fida of Melrose Cafe and Bar says Melrose — winner in the program’s bar/lounge category — got some useful advice from participating in Best Bar None. The bar was happy, he says, to make changes in areas highlighted by the program’s assessment, such as emergency evacuation policies.
“For us, we didn’t have to change too much as we were quite compliant with Alberta Gaming and Liquor in the first place. So for us it was just merely a double check.”
But while it’s easy to recognize bars such as Melrose for things they’re already doing, it’s harder to persuade laxer establishments to make changes. Timothy Stockwell, director of the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research of B.C., is skeptical Best Bar None will inspire unscrupulous bars to clean up their act.
“I doubt that it would,” he says. “There’s very good reasons why people aren’t complying with a lot of these policies: it’s ’cause you can make money that way.”
In most cities, Stockwell says, a small proportion of establishments are responsible for the vast majority of violent incidents at bars. Many of these bars, he says, permit overcrowding; serve intoxicated customers; employ poorly trained bouncers who may cause as many fights as they prevent; and are generally willing to cut corners to eke out a profit.
“These are all things which people do because they’re trying to make a living,” he says. “So you do need a law enforcement approach as well, because a lot of these people are on the margins of profitability. And we’re balancing their need to make a living against the health and welfare and safety of their customers and people on the streets, driving on the roads.”
The first step in combating bar violence, Stockwell says, is controlling the price of alcohol, since cheap drinks increase intoxication and can thus increase violence (he praises Alberta for introducing minimum drink prices in 2008). There’s also evidence, he says, to support limiting the density of bars within a given area; restricting bars’ hours of operation; and requiring training for staff on responsible liquor service (which the province mandates).
Finally, Stockwell adds, authorities must inspect bars regularly, and enforce real consequences, such as fines and suspension or loss of licence, for repeat offenders. Best Bar None, he notes, is just one of the AGLC’s initiatives, and it will only succeed as part of a comprehensive approach.
“I have no problem with rewarding good practice,” he says. “But it’s just a little bit of icing on the cake, a little bit of nice PR. There’s a lot underneath that has to be right if the problems are going to be addressed and minimized.”