In January, a pair of undercover Providence Police Department agents entered Karma nightclub on Richmond Street to conduct a sting operation.
They weren’t looking for drugs or weapons, but establishments selling liquor to high-rollers by the bottle, a popular offering in clubs across the country that Providence officials have blamed repeatedly for nightlife violence.
At their request, the agents were seated at a VIP table in a special section of the club in exchange for agreeing to spend $240 on a bottle of Hennessey cognac, which was delivered along with glasses, a pitcher of cranberry juice and a bucket of ice.
While the bottle-service concept seems straightforward – the customer gets special treatment that the club can charge a premium for – Providence considers it an illegal menace that makes policing nightclubs difficult.
The practice was highlighted in a City Council report last December on nightclub violence that formed the basis for a package of new rules for the industry passed this spring.
“This issue is big, because when I sit in licensing-board hearings, all of this violence and stabbings is emanating from the VIP sections, which are all about bottle service,” said Andrew J. Annaldo, chairman of the Providence Board of Licenses.
Citing state law, the city fined Karma $1,000 for providing bottle service, plus $500 for letting patrons serve themselves alcohol and another $1,000 for serving a minor, according to state records of the case.
And the sting at Karma was part of a wider crackdown that resulted in fines on 13 clubs for bottle service worth at least $14,000.
But in addition to questioning the connection between VIP amenities and violence, Karma’s owners felt they had another reason to challenge the fines: according to their reading of the law, bottle service isn’t illegal in Rhode Island.
The city based its prohibition on a 2008 notice from the R.I. Department of Business Regulation saying clubs “may not sell or deliver any alcoholic beverages by the bottle, excluding Aquardiente or wine, to any patron.”
The exception for Aquardiente, a South American liquor known in some places as “guaro,” is actually the only place where bottle service is specifically addressed in statute and the section cited by the licensing board.