March 21, 2014 10:00 AM

Popular music venue slash bistro Artmosphere needs to sell more food or face the loss of its liquor license.

Photo by Robin May  
Artmosphere owner Beryl Kemp  

Would you go out to hear your favorite young Lafayette rock or roots band and not drink a beer or two (or three)? Probably not. That's why Beryl Kemp, owner of the popular live-music venue Artmosphere, finds herself between the proverbial rock and a hard place: Artmosphere is licensed as a restaurant, but the majority of its sales come from alcohol thanks to its nightly live music, placing it afoul of a state licensing law that requires restaurants to make at least 51 percent of their revenue from food sales.

And here's the rub: Artmosphere cannot be licensed as a bar. It can never be licensed as a bar; it's in Lafayette's Central Business District at the corner of Johnston and Convent streets, and since the business opened 11 years ago the City-Parish Council passed a moratorium on bar licenses Downtown.

If Kemp can't figure out a way to move more burgers and fewer beers at Artmosphere over the next three months, she will lose her license to sell alcohol - that was the decree of Troy Hebert, the former state senator who now serves as commissioner of the state office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control. Hebert summoned Kemp to Baton Rouge on March 13 to show proof that her food sales are the bulk of her business. Kemp couldn't prove it. Hebert gave her 90 days to turn it around.

The stakes are high: For a business like Artmosphere that has evolved into more of a live-music venue than anything, losing a permit to sell alcohol could signal the end of the club's run.

"I have a lot of plans [to increase food sales], and I've always had a lot of plans because I've never wanted in my own heart of hearts for it to be how people think of it - just a bar; I never thought that about Artmosphere," says Kemp, who acknowledges that since renovating a few years ago to include an indoor stage and emphasizing nightly live music, Artmosphere's reputation as a music venue/bar - as opposed to a restaurant - has been further cemented. "I'm dependent on what people want to do," she says. "And I've always felt like, frankly, the Downtown business people have never come to Artmosphere [to eat], and I don't know that they ever will."

Artmosphere has a full-service kitchen with an extensive menu of wraps, salads, burgers and sandwiches in addition to beer-noshing faves like nachos. But Kemp says Mother Nature has also played a role in the business' revenue tilting toward alcohol and away from food: "I think it isn't just the trend over time; I think it's also seasonal," she says. "We had a really bad weather year this year, and when that happens people don't come out during the day and sit on the deck and eat lunch. They still come out at night and have drinks and listen to music indoors."

Commissioner Hebert acknowledges that Artmosphere is a good neighbor Downtown relative to several other bars along Jefferson Street. Police have logged no calls there related to felonies or violence, and Kemp was actually given an award certificate from Hebert a few months ago after Artmosphere came up clean in a sales-to-minors sting operation conducted by ATC in Lafayette - an operation that landed several bars with citations and temporary loss of their liquor licenses.

"Our objective is not to close the place," Hebert says. "Our objective is to make them abide by the law."

If after 90 days Artmosphere can turn around its food-to-liquor sales ratio, Hebert says, the business will be placed on a probationary period and monitored monthly.

Meanwhile Kemp, as of the deadline for this article, was scheduled to meet with her councilman, Brandon Shelvin, to see if there's some legislative fix. But the moratorium on new bar licenses Downtown, as it stands now, leaves little wiggle room: sell more food than booze or else. Artmosphere, in that respect, has become a victim of its own success.

"When I opened I was very green," Kemp admits. "I think Artmosphere grew into what it is because it grew into what I love, which is all the arts including music and the food and all of that."

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