Pool, pizza and beer — little appetite for that combination in Fort Thomas

City denied beer permit to Raniero's, prompting its closing and a lawsuit

May 1, 2017 at 9:08 am

In a town as antiseptic as Fort Thomas, one question jumps out: Is it fair to expect residents to shoot pool and eat pizza without beer?

Providing an answer will fall to a federal judge whose own predilection for quaffing a brew while breaking racks is not readily verifiable. The U.S. District Court in Covington has inherited a dispute that started in Fort Thomas city hall last October. Two men who owned Raniero's Pizzeria in Fort Thomas Plaza on Alexandria Pike wanted to sell beer, a beverage commonly found in pool halls and pizza restaurants in the United States. The city said no, and Raniero's closed in January.

The owners, Michael Howard and Adam Lyle, say the city violated their constitutional right to "earn a living in a common occupation of their choice" as well as their due process, equal protection and First Amendment rights. The city has not responded to the lawsuit. City Clerk Melissa Kelly did not respond to voicemail and email requests for comment from CityBeat.

Fort Thomas' city ordinances instruct City Council to consider proper applications for alcoholic beverage licenses at a regular meeting. In their lawsuit, Howard and Lyle say the council never did that. Instead, a hearing was conducted on Dec. 19 by Jennifer Machesney, the city's alcoholic beverage control administrator. 

The lawsuit says that a "hearing notice" deemed the beer-permit requests to be "in order in regard to form and content" and noted that there were no objections to the application. The city did, however, receive a petition signed by eight residents of a street behind Fort Thomas Plaza. They wrote that they are "adamantly opposed to alcohol or beer sales in any pizza parlor or pool hall in the Fort Thomas Plaza. We are concerned about the type of cliental (sic) this would bring to our community."

The petition said nothing about the Highlander Bourbon and Wine Bar that operates inside the Fort Thomas Antiques and Design Center, also in Fort Thomas Plaza. Among its offerings are a "Muhammad Ali 'Spicy Sting' " bourbon flight for $24 and the "Judge Roy Bean 'One of a Kind' " flight for $26. If whiskey-addled customers are swerving into displays inside or cars outside, its liquor license appears to be safe.

In an un-dated letter to the state, Machesney says Raneiro's beer application was denied because of the owners' "extensive criminal records," the sale of alcoholic beverages to minors at a previous location, noncompliance with fire safety codes and the petition from the eight residents.

But Howard, also known as Michael Raneiro, told Fort Thomas Matters in January that the criminal cases were either old, inconsequential or dismissed and that he had never violated state liquor laws. He says he and Lyle have never been given a chance to defend themselves or appear before City Council.

So the spat will now spill into a federal courtroom. Howard and Lyle, represented by attorney Brandon Voelker, are asking the court to force the city to "lawfully" consider their request for a beer license. They want a judge to review the city's compliance with its own alcoholic beverage licensing procedures. And they want unspecified monetary damages and a finding of defamation.

CONTACT James McNair at [email protected], 513-914-2736 and @jmacnews on Twitter