When he first heard in 2016 that a new restaurant called Sangria might be opening on Charles Street, Mount Vernon resident Dennis Richter was enthusiastic.
“We were all very excited,” he said. “I was especially, because it was a small business, to advocate for them.”
But seven years later, Richter told Baltimore’s liquor board recently, he regrets that he ever supported Sangria because it isn’t the sit-down restaurant that was promised.
“I feel somewhat let down and very disappointed because of how this has turned out,” he said.
Michael Donnenberg is another Mount Vernon resident who feels duped. He said he and his wife went in last month and asked to be seated and to see a menu. But he said Sangria didn’t have a menu and didn’t offer to seat them.
“This is not a restaurant,” he told the liquor board. “It has a restaurant license. It is not a restaurant. It’s a nightclub.”
Richter and Donnenberg were part of a group of Mount Vernon residents who appeared before the liquor board on April 27 to ask that it not renew Sangria’s “Class B: Beer, Wine and Liquor” restaurant license, which was due to expire April 30.
In a meeting that lasted more than an hour, the residents outlined their reasons for not wanting Sangria in their community: trash, noise, safety issues, staying open later than they indicated to the community that they would. They said the management hasn’t been responsive to their concerns. One resident played two videos showing what she said were shootings in the alley behind Sangria, captured from the security camera at her residence.
One complaint that came up over and over was the charge that Sangria has not been operating in keeping with the terms of its Class B liquor license, which was issued for a full-service restaurant.
Instead, residents told the board, Sangria is operating as a nightclub – a business category that requires a different liquor license and one that Sangria doesn’t have, a BD-7 license. They say Sangria is operating under false pretenses, and that alone is grounds for not renewing the license it has.
“Their Facebook page advertises all these types of nightclub activities,” Donnenberg said. “They don’t advertise food. They don’t advertise sporting activities. They just advertise nightclub activities. It is a nightclub.”
In response, representatives for Sangria said the complaints are coming from a community association comprised of mostly white members who are aiming to shut down a minority-owned business.
Their lead speaker was Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby, who told the board he had an event there and is a longtime patron. Mosby said he believes Sangria is doing a good job and deserves to have its license renewed. Noting Baltimore’s past history of segregation, he said he believes the dispute may be a sign of “cultural differences” between the predominantly white MVBA members and the predominantly Black patrons of Sangria.
“Right now there’s no surprise that there are crime issues in our city, not just in Mount Vernon but throughout the entire city,” Mosby said. “And from all of the complaints that I’ve been able to receive, it appears that whenever anything happens in proximity, whether they’re operating or not, it’s kind of pointed to or blamed on the establishment,” meaning Sangria.
Mosby said he doesn’t have “data points” to offer the liquor board, but “when we look at the level of enforcement, the level of time, the level of attention that the city has placed on this one particular establishment in the heart of Mount Vernon, I think it is probably going to viewed as disproportional…It outpaces all the other establishments around there.”
Ricardo Jones, a representative for the business at 930 N. Charles St., said Sangria didn’t set out to fool the community. But he acknowledged that Sangria did “shift” its business model in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, by offering a “consolidated” menu featuring prepared food brought in from off-site. He stressed that Sangria’s operators have said from the beginning that they planned to offer live entertainment.
After hearing from both sides, the three liquor board members said they didn’t feel comfortable renewing Sangria’s liquor license at the hearing. They said they would defer a decision for 11 days so both sides could come together and try to work out their differences.
Chairperson Albert Matricciani summed up the board’s position when he said he was troubled by the testimony he heard. “I’m not prepared to say ‘Go right ahead, keep doing what you’re doing,’ because it’s a mess,” he said.
How the process works
In Baltimore, liquor licenses expire on April 30 and must be renewed for the licensees to continue serving alcohol. In most cases, the licenses are renewed without a public hearing.
But in cases where communities have voiced concerns about a business, the liquor board gives residents an opportunity to protest liquor license renewals at a public hearing, and gives the license holders a chance to present their side as well.
Sangria was one of four licensees whose licenses were protested on April 27. It was the only one whose license wasn’t renewed after the board heard the community’s protests – a sign of how seriously the board took the complaints.
In deferring a decision on Sangria, the liquor board members urged the community and the business to work with a mediator to attempt to resolve their differences. Last week, the two sides met in City Hall with City Council member Eric Costello serving as mediator.
The liquor board was originally scheduled to meet virtually this week to hear about the mediation and decide how to proceed, but that meeting has been canceled at the request of all parties. The board has now put the matter on the docket for its next in-person meeting in City Hall, scheduled for May 18, according to Deputy Executive Secretary Nicholas Blendy.
For every concern raised by community members, Sangria’s operators and their attorneys offered reasons for why they should be allowed to stay open. Matricciani, the chairman, gave both sides a chance to get their points across, and the hearing lasted more than an hour.
One of issues at stake was the status of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by representatives for both Sangria and the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association. It was drafted to provide a framework for how the business would operate, including hours of operation and rules about trash collection, noise control and other issues.
One condition in the existing MOU specified 1 a.m. as the time for the business to close but said hours could be extended on dates when there are “special sporting events” that might go past 1 a.m. The MOU was vague on exactly what constituted a special sporting event, and that has been a source of contention with the community.
To help make its case to the liquor board, the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association hired an attorney who usually helps businesses obtain liquor licenses — Stephan Fogleman, current chair of the city’s Ethics Board. MVBA president Jack Danna also wrote a lengthy letter to the liquor board outlining the association’s point of view.
During the in-person hearing on April 27, Danna and other residents pointed to about a number of concerns that led to their call for Sangria’s license not to be renewed. They included issues involving trash, noise, safety, hours of operation and adherence to Sangria’s MOU with the community.
The residents also went into great detail about why they thought Sangria hasn’t been operating as a restaurant, as its license stipulates.
While it may have been initially presented to the community as a restaurant, several said, it seems to have morphed into something they didn’t agree to and don’t want.
Richter said he attended an event that Mosby held at Sangria and was surprised that it didn’t seem like the restaurant he thought would be replacing the previous occupant, Red Maple.
“At the time when they communicated the idea, the concept for Sangria, they shared a sample menu with the community,” Richter said. “It clearly was set up and thought of as: This is a restaurant and a great addition to Mount Vernon.”
When he first went in, Richter said, “it seemed apparent to me that this was not a restaurant” but more of “a club type of environment” because of the layout and the way liquor was sold by the bottle.
In response to the accusation that MVBA is anti-business or targeting Sangria, Richter said that’s not true.
“We actually have been advocating for these [small] businesses, and I have been very strongly advocating for Sangria, so I specifically feel somewhat disappointed and let down because I was the one that was really speaking up for them,” he said.
Richter said community associations trust businesses to live up to what they promise and tend to remember when they don’t.
“When you have an operator that really does not uphold the agreement that it has made with the community, it really is detrimental,” especially to those who come later, he said. “The next restaurant owner coming with an idea, they’re going to be perceived as ‘Oh, what are they going to do?’”
Because of the promises broken so far by Sangria, Richter said. “I don’t have the trust that they will really uphold any MOU going forward, even with any changes. Unfortunately, I don’t feel comfortable… that they’re going to really stand by what they agree to.”
“You understand that if they agree to an MOU and they violate the MOU, we have the authority to close them down?” Matricciani asked him.
“That’s my understanding, yes,” Richter said.
Christopher Rizakos, one of Sangria’s attorneys along with Caroline Hecker, asked Richter if he remembers if food was served at Mosby’s event he attended.
“I remember broccoli, carrots, kind of,” Richter said. “But it was mostly drinks. There was really no menu or something where you could order.”
Rizakos asked if Richter had specific dates and times to document when he thought Sangria violated its MOU.
Richter said he doesn’t personally have specific dates and times, but he knows from walking his dog on Morton Alley that trash is an “ongoing issue.” The dumpsters “are always in the drive,” he said. “Not even on the side. They’re sitting in the middle of the road. It’s very hard for other businesses to get in and out.”
Richter, who owns the building occupied by Eddie’s grocery store on Eager Street, said he also gets emails and phone calls from tenants, worried about incidents they observe or hear about. When there have been shootings or some other late night disturbances behind Sangria, he said, word spreads quickly.
“Employees come to Eddie’s concerned about the activities that took place the night before,” he said. “People are coming to me, concerned about it…Those are the kinds of things I have personally observed.”
‘See for ourselves’
Donnenberg said he and his wife love living in Mount Vernon because of its architecture, its “diversity and inclusiveness,” and its “vibrant activity,” including its restaurants. He said he vividly remembers when an attorney for Sangria first presented plans for the business at an MVBA board meeting.
“We were very intrigued by a new tapas restaurant coming to our neighborhood,” he said. “In fact, when they were questioned, they said that they occasionally might have a deejay or live entertainment, but their focus was a restaurant, and that was the basis for the MOU” with the MVBA.
“My testimony here is to say that over these years, all of those promises we had, essentially promises in the MOU, have been repeatedly broken,” he said.
Donnenberg said that after hearing reports of a shooting in the rear of Sangria, he and his wife did more research about the business, remembering the initial promises that it would be a tapas restaurant.
“After the first shooting, my wife and I looked at their Facebook page,” he said. “We looked at their website and we looked into health department reports.”
Their website “has a beautiful picture of food,” he said. “It says ‘Baltimore’s newest addition,’ so I think it’s seven years out of date. And it says ‘Coming soon, our chef.’ If you click at the bottom, where it says menu, it’s a broken link. There is no menu.”
Donnenberg pointed to a city health department report on Sangria dated Feb. 11, 2023, which he said listed multiple citations. He read one part of the report that noted: “Kitchen equipment not maintained so that it functions properly. Assistant manager stated that the kitchen equipment is not being used and therefore is not being maintained.”
Still curious about what’s going on, he said, he and his wife went to have a meal there.
“My wife and I decided to see for ourselves,” he told the board. “So on April 21, at 7:25 p.m. – a great time to go to a restaurant – we came to the front door of Sangria. We were told they’re not open yet, come back in a half hour. When we returned 45 minutes later, we went inside. There are no tables. There is no service. There’s a bar. We went to the bar. We ordered a drink. Then we said ‘can we see the menu?’ There was no menu. Then we asked, ‘can’t we get any food?’ She said ‘wait a minute, I’ll talk to the manager.’ She went to the manager and said ‘our food lady is going to get here around 9. If you’d like to wait, we can tell you what we have when she gets here.’”
After that experience, Donnenberg told the board, he concluded: “It is not a restaurant. It’s a nightclub. It’s a violent nightclub. It’s a loud nightclub. It’s a nightclub that violates everything in the MOU. It is not a restaurant. I urge you to revoke their license because they are not in any way compliant with a restaurant that serves alcohol.”
Curt Decker, a 48-year resident of Mount Vernon, said the neighborhood has had problems in the past with businesses that promised to be a restaurant but operated as a nightclub. “This is not our first rodeo.”
Decker pointed to the case of a business called The Museum, which took over the space of the old Brass Elephant at 924 N. Charles St. about 10 years ago. He said that business “promptly deteriorated into a nightclub” and “this board revoked that license, so the precedent is there.”
Decker urged the liquor board not to renew Sangria’s license this year. “This is a fragile, beautiful gem of Baltimore,” he said of Mount Vernon. “We need to have a variety of city agencies – the police department, the department of housing, CHAP [the city’s preservation commission] and the liquor board — to protect this neighborhood.”
“Sprinkles” of representation
Rizakos called a Sangria patron named Daniel Parsons to testify. Parsons, who is African American, said he has lived in Mount Vernon for about three years and feels welcome at Sangria.
“I frequent Sangria,” he told the board. “That’s why I’m here [at the hearing.] I eat there every Friday. Sangria is like one of the only places I can go to on the weekend and watch the game. Maybe Thursday. See some ladies. Eat some wings. Have a good time. Go home.”
Parsons said he’s been at Sangria when inspectors come through.
“I’ve been at the establishment plenty of times and seen so many different agencies that have come through, almost like it’s a raid,” he said. “And honestly, being in that position, it doesn’t make you feel good. Because I’ve been in a number of other bars and restaurants all over Baltimore City and I’ve not experienced the same things I’ve experienced there.”
Parsons said there aren’t a lot of places in Mount Vernon where he sees many other African Americans.
“Personally, I don’t feel like they’re represented well,” he said. “I don’t see a lot of people like me in…the Mount Vernon neighborhood. There’s sprinkles of it. There’s not a lot of establishments where minorities go to, you know? So being a new resident to Mount Vernon, I really appreciate Sangria. I eat food there. I watch basketball games. The NBA playoffs are on ‘til 1:30 a.m. every night. Forty days, forty nights. That’s all I wanted to say. I think Sangria does a good job and I feel like it’s needed in the area.”
He also addressed security issues.
“Could they prevent violence? I think violence is everywhere. However, there’s security at the front. There’s security at the back door. I see security everywhere.”
Fogleman asked Parsons if he was aware that Sangria doesn’t have a food menu on its website. “You’re not aware that if you go to sangriabaltimore.com, you get a 404 error when you click on the menu?”
Parsons said that doesn’t bother him because he doesn’t look online for menus. “When I go to a restaurant, I just go and I ask,” he said. “I’m not a big Yelp guy.”
Special sporting events
Jones, the Sangria representative, said the parking lot behind Sangria is used by the general public, not just Sangria. He said he thought news reports have unfairly drawn negative attention to his business by saying a shooting occurred “behind Sangria,” when the police report generally gives only the address of a property and not the name. “It’s alarming that of all these people can get riled up” from the mention of the name, he said.
Fogleman asked about Sangria’s interpretation of ‘special sporting events” and Parsons’ testimony about 40 days, 40 nights. “Were you affirming that those were all special sporting events?” he asked.
“When the NBA playoff s are on, and there’s a game after 1 a.m., yes,” that’s considered a special sporting event, Jones said.
“Did you ever think to contact the community to tell the community that for the next six weeks, we’re going stay open till 2?” Fogleman asked.
Jones said he had not thought about contacting the community but would be willing to do so.
“Would you agree with me that ‘special’ might not mean every Saturday?” Fogleman asked.
Shift during COVID
Fogleman then asked what percentage of Sangria’s sales are for food. That’s when Jones said food sales have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What we do sometimes, on late nights, is that we’ll have — because of COVID, sometimes we’ll bring in literally a consolidated menu” with options prepared off site, he said.
“Is it your testimony that you’ve had a fully-functioning kitchen at all times” since the license was issued? Fogleman asked.
“The only time we didn’t, we had an issue” with an oven, Jones said. “We got that rectified.”
Why was there no menu online when the Donnenbergs came in? he asked.
“We took the menu down online,” Jones said, adding that he didn’t know which employee spoke with the couple.
“Isn’t it true that you’ve sort of shifted your business model from more of a restaurant to a straight bar and nightclub?” he asked.
“No,” Jones said. “We shifted since COVID. It’s not about us being a nightclub. We always said we were going to have live music and everything like that.”
But you did highlight the tapas at the inception of this license, and a full menu?”
“Yes,” he said.
Rizakos asked the liquor board’s chief inspector, John Chrissomallis, if Sangria has had a “disproportionate” amount of 311 calls about it, compared to other liquor licensees in Baltimore City.
“I think that Sangria — I don’t have it here in front of me – I think Sangria probably is in the top five most 311 calls in Baltimore City, if that answers your question,” Chrissomallis said.
Fogleman said the MVBA is one of the most business friendly community organizations in the city, and its members are generally supportive of the restaurants there. “The members of this association, they like to go out and eat,” he told the board. “They like to go out and drink.”
Echoing Richter, Fogleman said the MVBA’s members also believe strongly that when the community has an MOU with a liquor licensee, it should be respected and followed.
“Due process is sacrosanct to these communities,” Fogleman said. “When it appears to be ignored, or it appears to be parsed, to be thwarted to the advantage of a licensee, it creates an enormous amount of ill will with the community,” he said.
In this case, “the community suspects that there was a business plan change,” he said. “And if you are going to change a business plan from a real restaurant to a real nightclub, you go get a BD-7 license. You don’t operate under a Class B license.”
“I take your point,” Matricciani said. “If there was a change in business plan, they should have [applied for the appropriate license]. Is that a reason to invalidate their license right now?… I think that’s something that the licensee needs to address and address very soon, in terms of what they are.”
Matricciani said the community raised enough questions about the operation and its license that he didn’t want to renew its license without further information.
“It can’t go on like this, he said. “This is not going well at all.”
In terms of having the appropriate license, “I don’t know whether he’s operating as an actual [Class] B license anymore, in light of the pandemic,” he said. “We have to look at that. And perhaps our staff needs to get involved to [address] some of the acrimony as well…I think we need to resolve these very big issues and resolve them rather quickly…I respect what Mr. Jones might be trying to do here, but this is not a good operation right now. It’s got to get cleaned up.”
This situation sounds like bullying from the Neighborhood Association and Food and Live Entertainment RedLining within Baltimore City. When a business does not mirror the racial and cultural makeup of the Mt. Veron majority residents, they are met with threats and intimidation until their political weight is used to revoke the businesses’ operating permits.
As a resident of this neighborhood for almost 4 years and a lifelong city resident sangria causes no harm it’s a cool place and I mean that in the sense the people here are not stuck up sangria is the cool kids table at school and 1 of a handful of places a heterosexual male can party in the neighborhood every other demographic has a night spot what about ours
This feels very racially motivated. How can you blame this establishment for shootings in a parking lot that is shared with other businesses in the area. How can you say “I think it’s top 5 for 311 calls” and that be effective enough for a ruling. This seems very one sided and seems as if the board as made it’s decision already.
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