Breweries, wineries and restaurants may now legally offer free bingo to patrons without fear of punishment by the state following a recent ruling by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission.
The MLCC decided in a recent evidentiary hearing involving Hudsonville Winery Inc., which does business at Pike 51 Brewing Co., that free bingo — often used to drum up business on typically slow nights — does not constitute illegal gambling.
“Now (breweries and wineries) can do bingo again. Most of them were holding off,” said Joseph Infante, principal at Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone PLC and chair of the firm’s alcoholic beverage regulation team. “I think some were probably still doing it but didn’t know about the issue. My clients weren’t doing it. And then COVID stopped a lot of it, too.”
The decision gives a green light to the popular activity, which engages patrons to win small prizes, and settles a complaint against Pike 51 Brewing that stems from an incident three years ago.
Back in the spring of 2018, MLCC investigators observed games of free bingo at Pike 51 Brewing that resulted in a formal complaint against the brewery in May of 2019.
Represented by Infante, Pike 51, along with four other local breweries, requested a declarative ruling from the MLCC, arguing that bingo was not a form of illegal gambling.
However, the MLCC denied the request for a ruling, claiming to have already taken a position on the matter. The MLCC pointed to a previous case involving Saugatuck Brewing Co. in which the Douglas-based brewery received a similar complaint for unlawful gambling. Instead of appealing the allegations, Saugatuck Brewing paid the fine.
The breweries then appealed the denial to the Kent County Circuit Court, where a judge approved the MLCC’s procedures but never ruled on the merits of whether free bingo was a form of illegal gambling.
To get to the merits of the case, Pike 51 had to first litigate the case in front of the MLCC, with potential appeals left to the courts.
That set up an April 28 evidentiary hearing, presided over by MLCC Commissioner Edward Toma. The Attorney General’s Office represented the MLCC in the case.
After the hearing, Toma determined that the bingo cards were free and drink prices remained the same for patrons.
The brewery also gave away half-off coupons to purchase beer, which MLCC investigators argued was a form of giving away alcohol as a prize, but Toma disagreed.
“I think (Toma) made the right ruling here and he did a fantastic job of listening to the evidence and listening to the issues,” Infante told MiBiz. “I think he got to the right ruling.”
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