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The Crux in Flux

Coffee is currently the only brew offered at Boise's new nightspot

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The Crux defies categorization. The unique blend of nightclub, coffee shop and beer garden has been open since January, but the all-ages venue/tavern/coffee klatsch is currently minus an element it had for its first three months of operation (and planned from its inception): beer and wine.

"Our family didn't want to get into the bar business," said Bob Cooper, owner of The Crux. "We were looking for a European-style cafe--and hitting the mark."

But The Crux is missing a key provision of those European cafes--the ability to serve alcohol to adults, while still admitting those younger than 21 years of age.

"[Idaho State Police] officers came down here and said that they wanted to post that it's a place for 21 and older," said Cooper. "And I said no, no, no, we'll pull the beer. We're not going to do that."

Cooper said he wants an environment where customers can imbibe coffee, sip a beer, catch a concert or just hang out in the space. During the Treefort Music Fest in March, The Crux was at-capacity for a number of concerts, packing in swarms of people along its corrugated-steel bar. The Crux remained one of few Treefort venues for underage patrons.

But on the evening of May 3, the place was nearly empty. Half of the people in the building were on stage, performing for a bartender and a sole patron. Cooper said sales are down 30 percent and two full-time employees are down to 15 hours a week after two Idaho State Police officers told The Crux in April to ban minors from the establishment or quit serving beer and wine.

"They didn't qualify as a restaurant so they qualified as a bar/tavern," said Lt. Robert Clements, chief of Idaho's Alcohol Beverage Control. "They should have been posting their doors limiting minors."

Clements is one of only two officers tasked with enforcing the state's alcohol beverage laws. With limited staffing and budget, Clements follows up on approximately 5,000 licensees across the state. In April, he met with one of them, Cooper, to talk about how his license didn't allow for an all-ages venue.

"I'm not trying to tell you there were no mistakes made by us. We're very naive about this business," said Cooper, who also manages a flooring company in Portland, Ore. "We've never been in this business before."

Cooper said he didn't open The Crux to simply create another drinking establishment, and said he didn't feel like Idaho law barred his vision of a coffee shop with booze on the side. Much of his immediate family, including his sons, serve as his employees.

"If they gave me a liquor license tomorrow, I would not want it," said Cooper. "And we don't want to be a bar. If we were a bar, we'd do 21 and over. It's not what we had in mind to bring downtown and to run as a business."

So when the ISP came to tell him to surrender his license or remove the beer and wine, Cooper locked his kegs and taps in a back room, hoping to iron out his problem sooner than later. But beer and wine haven't flowed at The Crux since.

"They wanted to give us a $1,000 fine, or take away the beer license for two weeks--or 10 days--I can't remember, but it was our choice," said Cooper.

Ultimately, The Crux wasn't penalized. Cooper said his original intent was to apply for a license to pour beer and wine under the terms of a restaurant endorsement, which allows drinking in an establishment with patrons of all ages. But Clements told Cooper that his business didn't qualify.

"You look at legitimate restaurants--a chain or local restaurant--you can tell they hold themselves out as a food-eating establishment," said Clements. "You would not typically look at a restaurant that charges a cover to get in."

To bring himself back into compliance, Cooper asked Clements what he needed to make his coffee shop more like a restaurant. He said he was told The Crux needed to have a menu, offer food prepared on site and purchase an oven.

"I was going to be a smartass and ask, 'Do I have to plug the stove in?'" said Cooper.

Through the massive picture window of The Crux, Boise's Main Street reflects a bit of Cooper's old-world city vision: the city's antique-looking light posts, automatically clicking on at twilight,

Cooper said he crafted a menu of sandwiches, drew up new design plans with an architect, and has added a kitchen space to his plans.

"But I said, 'Really, tell me what you want. Six sandwiches? Eight sandwiches? You tell me and that's what I will do to get what I want,'" he said.

Quoting from Idaho State Code, however, Clements said it may take more than just offering food. He wouldn't speak to The Crux specifically, but for a location to qualify as a "primarily food-eating establishment," certain criteria must be met.

"Primarily, are they advertising themselves as a food-eating establishment? If they are advertised as a dancing, drinking, nightlife establishment, then they are not going out of their way to promote themselves as a restaurant," said Clements.

That qualification as a restaurant can also come from a ratio of 40 percent food to 60 percent non-food sales, but only if other conditions are met.

Cooper believes coffee counts as food.

"Is coffee food or not?" asked Cooper. "Well, the FDA sees it as food; scientifically it's considered food, but Lt. Clements says, 'Well, I'm not going to give you a restaurant license with just coffee.'"

Cooper said Clements makes his decision based on his personal opinion of what defines a restaurant, not Idaho Code.

"I tried to explain to him that Oregon has that same uniform code, written the same way," said Cooper. "They interpret it as a shop like this is perfect for being food."

Cooper said he was told Clements needs to be able to sit down in an establishment and order a meal in order to classify the location as a restaurant.

"The gist of it was: 'When I come into your place, if it's a restaurant, I want to be able to have a meal.' Well, the key word in that whole thing is the word 'I.'"

However, Clements pointed to Idaho statute and adopted rules, which specify what makes up a restaurant, including food-prep employees, a kitchen and cooking equipment. He said a restaurant is also defined by its regular menu, advertising and other atmosphere elements, as well.

"We'd have to look at other things, like 'Do they have full cooking facilities? Do they have regularly priced food items?' It doesn't have to be just a waiter," said Clements.

For now, The Crux continues to try operating in a gray area of the Idaho Code. Neither a cocktail lounge, nor a dance hall, bar, speakeasy or coffee shack, The Crux is in flux. And Cooper is waiting to complete his next set of paperwork--permits from the State Health Department--before launching his new kitchen.

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