A Wheaton restaurant was denied a liquor license renewal Thursday after county police cited a history of alcohol-related crimes stemming from the business, including an Oct. 25, 2011, incident when a drunken patron hurled a cinder block from the roof of the restaurant onto a police cruiser parked in the street below.
The Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control’s Board of License Commissioners voted 4-to-1 in favor of denying a renewal to Umberto’s restaurant co-owners Santos and Angel Medrano after a three-hour hearing, effectively preventing the restaurant, which doubles as an after-hours bar and nightclub, from serving alcohol pending a formal notice from the board later this month.
The restaurant, located at 11230 Grandview Ave. in the Wheaton central business district, had become a vector for alcohol-related assaults and crimes, police testified at the hearing. After an Oct. 28 community meeting failed to clear up the issues, police took their case to the liquor board, which scheduled its own hearing to investigate the claims when the restaurant came up for a license renewal in May. Umberto’s has been at the heart of several drunk driving arrests, multiple assaults against police officers and resisting arrest, assaults, drug cases and at least one kidnapping and shooting, according to police reports presented to the board.
“[The Medrano brothers] were given a significant number of chances to say what they were going to be doing better at Umberto’s and they did not appear to present us with anything,” said board chair Eugene M. Thirolf before casting his vote against renewal.
Commissioners Bernie Fomengia, Fred Silverman and Keith Um also voted to deny the renewal, while Commissioner Meg Baker cast the lone dissenting vote. The board will hold its next hearing Sept. 20, at which point the board will file an official resolution regarding their denial of the license. The restaurant will maintain its ability to serve alcohol until after the final hearing Sept. 20.
By that date, Barry Helfand, a private defense attorney hired by the Medrano brothers to represent their case to the board, hopes his clients will have reconciled with the police department.
“My plan is to have Mr. Medrano talk to the lieutenant in charge of the police department and see what their solutions are, that is, what they would like to see done,” Helfand said. “At that point, considering we have had enough time to address those points, I’ll file a motion to reconsider [the denial].”
Lt. Marc Yamada, the deputy district commander who first approached the board with district community affairs Officer Sharif Hidayat, said he looks forward to hearing from the restaurant owners.
“I would never want to take away business from Wheaton,” Yamada said after the hearing. “My main point is with safety for everyone who visits the CBD and for the police officers who work there. We don’t hold any personal vendetta against Umberto’s or any of the businesses down there.”
During the two days of the hearing held May 17 and Sept. 6, Helfand and Assistant Montgomery County Attorney Eric C. Willis, who represented the police department, called several witnesses before the board, including patrol officers who respond regularly to calls at the business and one officer, Hugo A. Salazar, who works part time as a security guard at Umberto’s up to three nights a week.
Salazar defended the restaurant, saying it is no worse than a number of similar establishments elsewhere in the business district. Overall restaurant owners, including those at Umberto’s, “may not be operating at a level that is good for the community,” Salazar’s admitted in his later testimony.
Willis questioned Salazar specifically about an incident Jan. 4 when Salazar, working part time outside Umberto’s, was punched in the face and had to use his Taser to subdue a restaurant patron who had been kicked out of the bar and created a disturbance outside.
Salazar was not present Oct. 25 last year when, at about 5:35 a.m., another drunken patron climbed onto the roof of the restaurant and threw a cinder block onto a police cruiser on the street below, narrowly missing a police officer who was responding to another call outside the bar as it was closing, according to police reports.
Santos Medrano testified that he himself checks IDs at the door and frequently turns away patrons who appear to be already drunk. However, many people drink in their cars before coming in, he said.
“We can’t tell if they are drunk until we see their reaction, it could be 10 minutes later,” Santos Medrano said. “Then we have to deal with them ... All we can do is eject them, throw them out.”
Santos Medrano repeatedly denied that his business was causing any problems, arguing instead that nearby establishments contribute more to police calls than the department was indicating .
“We understand that there are other license holders in the area … but that doesn’t mean that we should hold you to a lower standard,” Silverman told the brothers, reminding them that Umberto’s with a capacity for over 200 people, is by far the largest business allowed to serve alcohol in the area. “... Frankly I think you should be held to an even higher standard.”