Pizza chain seeking to open in Towson braces for fight with tavern owners

February 21, 1994|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Sun Staff Writer

Larry Flax and his partner, Neal Rosenfield, opened 45 gourmet pizza restaurants around the country without any problems. Then they came to Towson.

The two former federal prosecutors from California want to put one of their restaurants on the site of the old Mano Swartz furrier at 424 York Road, but the Baltimore County Licensed Beverage Association -- which represents taverns, restaurants and package goods stores -- opposes that idea.

"If this group wants to fight, we're prepared to fight with every legal resource we have," said Mr. Flax, who wants to transfer the liquor license held by an out-of-business Chinese restaurant to his California Pizza Kitchens Inc. "I've been out of the courtroom for over nine years, but this has my legal juices flowing again."

At issue is a state law that invalidates a liquor license in Baltimore County if the licensee vacates or loses control of the licensed business for longer than 180 days.

Another issue is the battle for customers in central Towson. "We've already got some 25 different kinds of restaurants with liquor licenses within a 10-minute walk of my place," said Peter N. Karangelen, who has owned and operated the Kent Lounge, at 506 York Road, for 37 years. "Tell me, where's the need for another one?"

The beverage association's opposition surfaced this week when the county Board of Liquor License Commissioners heard a discussion on whether the Szechuan Empire Restaurant's license is valid and can be transferred.

The commissioners are trying to define "vacate" and to decide when Szechuan Empire's licensees left the restaurant's premises at 707 York Road. They will not vote until they get an opinion from the county Office of Law.

The case's outcome will determine whether there will be a separate hearing on Mr. Flax's request. If the liquor board decides Szechuan Empire's license is invalid, California Pizza "will find another license to transfer," said Linda Carter, an attorney for the pizza company.

That is not comforting news for Mr. Karangelen, who said he lost business for three or four months after Towson Commons opened across the street in 1992. Four restaurants in that shopping center have liquor licenses approved by the state legislature.

"Thank goodness I've been in business for so long that I had longtime customers that kept me going," said Mr. Karangelen, a member of the license beverage and local business associations.

From his corporate office in Los Angeles, Mr. Flax said he wonders "how the beverage group has any standing in this case."

"But if the association is trying to interfere with our business on the grounds of competition, then I think we have at the least a strong antitrust case here," he said.

Anthony T. Bartlett, an attorney for the beverage association, said he didn't see any merit to Mr. Flax's antitrust contention.

William R. Snyder, chairman of the liquor board, said the association would have legal standing in the hearing on the transfer application, which would give Mr. Bartlett the right to cross-examine witnesses and offer his own witnesses.

Mr. Flax and Mr. Rosenfield started California Pizza in 1985. Two years ago, PepsiCo Inc., the huge food company, bought a substantial interest in the company. The company, which has restaurants in 12 states, already has two in Maryland. One is in the Montgomery Mall, and the other is about to open in the Annapolis Mall.

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