At lunchtime on a recent weekday, a summer breeze blew through the garage door-style window rolled up in front of Sammy’s Pizza, countering the heat thrown from a back-of-the-house pizza oven.
Inside the restaurant’s lounge, an expansive bar enclosed a line of 14 metal spigots — the centerpiece of what was intended to be a taproom.
“A perfect day for a cold one with your slice,” said Guy Snell, the owner and lone soul inside the pizza joint along an otherwise busy North End arterial.
At least, that was Snell’s dream. For now, his patrons can forget about ordering a pint anytime soon.
Five months after opening, Sammy’s remains a dry establishment.
What’s blocking the flow from Snell’s beer taps lies some 450 feet away across North I Street: Lowell Elementary.
Opposition from Tacoma Public Schools administrators — supported by a group of Lowell Parent-Teacher Association members — has prevented Sammy’s Pizza from serving alcohol.
The Revised Code of Washington states the Liquor Control Board — the agency that regulates liquor sales — can deny issuing a liquor license if an applicant’s “premises are within five hundred feet of any tax-supported public elementary” and a representative of the school formally objects.
Because official measurements placed the doors at Sammy’s within 500 feet of Lowell’s main entrance, Tacoma Schools Superintendent Carla Santorno essentially vetoed his liquor license application when she sent an objection letter in September.
Santorno wrote the district feared “patrons who may be under the influence of alcohol will use the public right of way that runs through the Lowell campus immediately adjacent to the school’s playground.”
School district spokesman Dan Voelpel recently said Santorno’s protest — the key letter among about a dozen formal protests sent to the liquor board that led the body to deny Snell’s application in March — isn’t a targeted rebuke of Snell or his business.
“Simply put, we object to all applications within the 500-foot boundary,” Voelpel said in an email.
But to Snell, who has invested some $100,000 into his business and countless hours into trying to work with school officials and others to obtain the license, the issue seems intensely personal.
“This is not about beer, wine or public urination,” Snell said. “This is about control. This is about six to 10 people in the nicest neighborhood in Tacoma making decisions for the entire community.”
Snell, 49, a lifelong Tacoma resident, got into the pizza business in 2007 by launching a Garlic Jim’s franchise at Sixth and Union avenues.
A few years later, when a check-cashing business next door closed, he leased that space, too, and opened an adjacent bar. He called it “Petey’s Pub” after his beloved Fox Terrier.
In late 2011, after Snell dropped affiliation with the Garlic Jim’s chain, he renamed his restaurant “Sammy’s Pizza,” after his other Fox Terrier. By then, Snell had built up a loyal customer base for both businesses when “an opportunity presented itself to move.”
A mile and a half away, a stretch of former offices near where North I Street turns into North 21st came up for rent.
“I just thought, ‘what a cool place,’ ” Snell recalled. “My vision was to make a family-friendly pizza place where you could get beer or wine with your pizza, kind of like a Shakey’s. I thought this was just what the neighborhood wants.”
Snell learned about the 500-foot rule from liquor board representatives while contemplating leasing the new space.
“But the law doesn’t say you can’t serve alcohol within 500 feet of a school,” he said. “It says if (school officials) object, you can’t.”
In the summer of 2012, Snell met with Bob Duke, Lowell’s then-interim principal, and was encouraged by the conversation. A few days later, when Snell emailed Duke to follow up, Duke responded: “Keep me posted and let me know if there is anything I can do to help.”
By late August 2012, Snell closed his pub and pizzeria on Sixth Avenue and signed a lease to relocate his pizza restaurant to the North I Street location. He also applied for a full liquor license to sell beer, wine and spirits at the new location.
Soon afterward, the Lowell Parent-Teachers Association learned about the application and mounted a campaign against it.
Some parents raised concerns about Internet reviews that described Snell’s pub on Sixth Avenue as a “watering hole” that had “wine on tap” and a “happy hour (that) is one of the best in Tacoma.”
Several PTA members also took issue with information about past promotions at Petey’s, including selling “tall boys” of beer for $1.50. Such deals promoted over-consumption of alcohol, they contended, that, if brought across the street from Lowell’s, could create safety problems for students.
In one letter, Lowell PTA president Rachael Bouma and her husband, Jess, a medical doctor, detailed those fears.
“Can you imagine intoxicated Pub patrons wandering down the right-of-way that bisects the school property during school hours,” one of the Boumas’ letters asked. “Or, loitering in the school garden after hours?”
Meantime, district officials sent their own formal objections. Along with Santorno’s letter, Duke, who’d initially expressed support, submitted a protest nearly verbatim to Santorno’s letter.
After learning about the objections, Snell sought to meet with PTA members, school officials and others to clarify what he saw as misperceptions about his business.
He also amended his application to exclude hard alcohol sales, and recruited his own customers, including several Lowell parents, to write letters of support.
Lowell parent Brian Myers wrote the PTA “inaccurately and unfairly characterized Sammy’s Pizza as a bar” rather than a “family-friendly pizza parlor .”
Retired Sen. Debbie Regala also wrote an email on Snell’s behalf.
“I certainly hope that a few negative voices do not carry more influence than the large group of supporters I am aware of,” Regala added.
Snell, meantime, had trouble getting anyone from Tacoma Public Schools to respond to him — other than the district’s lawyer.
Through various email exchanges, general counsel Shannon McMinimee told Snell that his use of the term “family friendly” to describe his proposed pizzeria wasn’t accurate because he intended to sell alcohol, and that term commonly applies only to “an establishment that does not serve alcohol.”
McMinimee added the district and Lowell “would of course welcome a family-friendly pizza restaurant in the neighborhood.” Had Snell offered to serve alcohol only during times when students weren’t present on the Lowell campus, “the District may have been willing to consider an agreement,” she wrote.
But when Snell twice tried to take her up on that offer, McMinimee rejected his suggestion, emails show.
Snell also looked into moving his closest entrance farther away from the school, but even the business’ rear door measured at 496 feet away according to the liquor board.
In March, the state’s liquor board issued an “intent to deny” Snell’s application, leaving him with the unlikely option of winning a license only by appeal.
Now waiting for an appeal date, Snell shakes his head and wonders “how things got sideways” with the Tacoma School District.
By the naked eye, Snell’s neighbor — Dave’s Meats, which sells beer and wine — appears to be far closer to the school than rear door to Snell’s pizzeria. Yet, records show the liquor board found the market “outside of 500 feet” from Lowell when it granted Dave’s a license in 2008.
While McMinimee said in an email to Snell that the district “has historically always objected” to applicants seeking a liquor license within 500 feet of its schools, interviews dispute that.
Mark Merrill, owner of the Proctor District wine bar Pour at Four, said his business is well within 500 feet of Washington-Hoyt Elementary School. Yet Merrill garnered no protests from the district or anyone else when he applied for a license in 2004.
“We just went through the normal application process and no one objected,” he said.
In all, at least seven businesses near Washington-Hoyt now serve alcohol. At least two of the businesses started after the state’s 500-foot rule came into effect in 1969.
When Joe Quilici opened the Italian restaurant Pomodoro, near the school in the mid-90s, Washington-Hoyt boosters recall the school’s principal and the PTA wrote letters in support of his liquor license application.
Without a license, Snell, who said he and his wife have invested their life savings into his business, said he’s not sure how long he can sustain Sammy’s Pizza.
“I’m no different than Roundtable or Chuck E. Cheese,” he added. “They both serve alcohol, so I guess they’re not family-friendly either. But really, all I’m asking for is some common sense.”