Senator helps, but couple won’t restart business - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Senator helps, but couple won’t restart business

May 26th, 2021 development
Senator helps, but couple won’t restart business

Executive Editor

Despite a helping hand from their state senator, a Chandler couple whose cocktail flavoring business was flattened by the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control say they’re too discouraged to start again.

State Sen. J.D. Mesnard read about Bill and Lillian Buitenhuys’ plight in the SanTan Sun News earlier this month.

The story recounted how the Buitenhuys had built a cocktail flavoring business, called AZ Bitters Lab, from scratch after getting the go-head from state liquor officials seven years ago.

Then, last October, the department shocked them with a ruling that forced them to shut down a business that had more than 600 bars and restaurants in Arizona alone and that drew customers form across the country and even the other side of the world.

After reading about their woes, Mesnard said his first reaction was, “Well, that’s not right.”

With the Legislature already knee-deep in voting on bills and trying to wrap up its 2021 session, Mesnard said he looked for a bill that he could amend – and found a solution in a bill that another Chandler lawmaker, Rep. Jeff Weninger is sponsoring that updates various aspects of the state liquor laws.

Among the updates is a provision that allows bars and restaurants to take orders for and deliver cocktails, beer and wine.

Weninger’s bill, already approved by the House, was awaiting a vote in the Senate. So, Mesnard offered an amendment that he said will allow the Buitenhuys to resume their business.

The Legislature has approved the bill and the amendment and the governor is expect to sign it.

But while the Buitenhuys appreciated Mesnard’s help, they said their treatment by the state liquor department has left them too discouraged and bitter to think about resuming their business.

“We went for months, trying to get answers from them out of how to proceed legally – they provided no answers,” Bill said. “We were pretty much forced to shut down because of their inaction and we’re not in this environment even thinking about trying to start up again.”

The department has not responded to a call for comment or a public records request from AFN.

“We had a business we built for eight years and then the government just decided, ‘Hey, we’re shutting you down for no good reason,’” Bill added. “We don’t want to go through that again. It took too much energy out of us.”

Added Lillian, “This has been frustrating, disheartening. “This was a labor of love and it took that piece out of it>

“Bill and I both have day jobs and so thankfully, this is not something that we are dependent upon for living wages,” she continued. “But we know a lot of small businesses and if they’re told, ‘Sorry, we’re changing the rules on you but we’re not going to tell you what those rules are,’ what resources do they have for a livelihood?”

Though the beverage community euphemistically call such products cocktail bitters – which are spirits – their product labels stress they are extracts.

The federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau agrees that unlike true bitters, the Buitenhuys had been making flavor extracts rather than spirits.

But the liquor department last fall It told the Buitenhuys their product actually was a spirit and that they would have to meet stringent requirements for becoming a spirits producer – including constructing a production facility that would pass state inspection as a distillery.

It was a blow for Lillian, a Gilbert native who has a fulltime job as a business manager, and Bill, a native Bostonian who works in the defense industry, who had started the business as a hobby until their products became so popular that they rent a commercial kitchen to make enough to sell.

But now they’ve left the kitchen – and their business – behind them.

“We were very blessed,” Lillian said. “We had people reaching out to us, offering us support and help and at that time, it was just really hard to manage it. But, you know, if you’re a small business and this is what you’re dependent upon, would someone have resources to hire a lawyer or be able to cover operating expenses while they’re trying to get information?”

“We’re okay,” she added. “But there are a lot of small businesses that if this happened to them, it’s not right.”