Most people know the drill: Anyone who wants an adult beverage at a local bar or restaurant will likely be required to show proper identification to prove they are at least 21 years old, which is the legal drinking age.
Local establishments are required to ask for identification—that’s the law, right? Wrong.
There are misunderstandings about the laws for being carded for drinking alcohol at area establishments.
The bottom line in Tennessee is that restaurant employees can’t serve anyone under the age of 21, but how they choose to enforce that is up to each establishment’s managers.
“There is no law that everyone has to be carded,” Officer John Collins with the Chattanooga Beer and Wrecker Board said via email. “Many restaurants make it their company policy.”
But patrons who go into many bars or restaurants downtown might find that it’s not uncommon to hear that state law requires patrons to be carded. Area residents sometimes take the misunderstanding a step further, thinking that every person is supposed to have an ID on them at all times.
That’s also not true, but Collins said it’s not a bad idea to have identification on your person.
Local resident Jim Leonard said he feels like he’s seen a change in local carding habits since last summer.
He’s 40 years old and still gets carded, which frustrates him.
He’s done a lot of personal research about the issue. He’s communicated with Collins and taken the same class that local bartenders take.
He doesn’t understand the need for carding people who are obviously older than 21, he said.
“It’s truly a matter of common sense,” he said. “Businesses adopt policies for two primary reasons—either because it’s required by government or because patrons like it.”
And he’s perplexed and annoyed because neither of those circumstances seems to apply here, he said. And to him, this is about government overreach.
“To me, it’s fundamentally about the role of government,” he said.
But some local business owners said they would rather be too strict than face penalties.
There are both state and local regulations, and Collins said that violations could result in a fine, suspension or arrest.
There are also countless stories about authorities going undercover to catch restaurant employees or bartenders who might be serving underage patrons.
But Collins said that local authorities do not go undercover to make sure every single person is carded.
Still, there’s a fear in local restaurateurs, and Nathan Lindley of Public House said that state officials have been aggressive in their enforcement.
“The [Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission] has been very aggressive in sending in undercover, underage guests to ‘test’ restaurants and bars,” he said via email. “That led me and many other restaurant/bar owners to set a ‘card everyone we don’t know by name’ policy.”
Chattanooga Brewing Co. co-owner Mark Marcum said that his business’ policy is to card everyone.
“If a server gets caught by the beer police with a carding-related offense, we would fire them,” he said via email. “We train our folks to follow the city ordinance.”
The Flying Squirrel co-owner Dan Rose acknowledged that many people do think the law is to card everyone, and his establishment used to operate like that.
After speaking to local and state authorities and getting a better understanding of the laws, restaurant leaders understood that it’s only illegal to serve anyone who is under the age of 21.
“This would mean that we don’t have to ID familiar faces who we know to be [21-plus],” he said via email.
The business’ current policy is to ID anyone who looks under 40. And he said that his staff knows that their jobs depend on playing it safe.
“If you’re clearly older or you’re a regular who we’re certain is [21-plus], we may make an exception if you forgot your ID,” he said. “We are more likely to refuse entry to someone we don’t know. Any stranger who looks 20–30 with no ID could be underage or an undercover agent.”
It is “painful and awkward” to refuse to serve people who are obviously in their 40s and older, Rose also said.
And that’s likely not in the spirit of the laws, which are meant to prevent underage drinking, he also said.
“The best way to avoid serving someone who’s underage is to have patient, experienced staff who know how to spot a fake,” he also said. “Our door guys have a scanner capable of catching sophisticated fakes, which they use if you’re in your early 20s and/or have an out-of-state ID.”
He also said he hopes that anyone who tells patrons that the law requires blanket carding is simply misunderstanding the rules.
Lindley also said that the potential consequences for servers and restaurants are too severe to take chances, so the “slight inconvenience” of carding everyone is a small price to pay.
But Leonard said it’s troubling that there’s such widespread confusion or ignorance about the laws.
“Apparently nobody has checked this other than me,” he said. “That’s a troubling trend. It’s amazing they just never questioned it.”