Early closing time ordered for Walnut Creek bar after history of fights, assaults and quadruple shooting

Early closing time ordered for Walnut Creek bar after history of fights, assaults and quadruple shooting

WALNUT CREEK – Last call for drinks at the Spoontonic Lounge will now occur two hours earlier than usual — a change Walnut Creek officials hope will help reduce police calls, violent crimes and general public nuisances around the property.

This week, they ordered Spoontonic to start closing by midnight, seven days a week, in an attempt to dissuade a recent uptick in bad behavior that bar staff blames on newer, younger patrons who “don’t know how to behave” since the pandemic.

The establishment — located at 2580 N Main St. but only accessible via SOS Drive — logged 12 reports of fights, alcohol sales to minors, public intoxication, drug sales and sexual assault in 2021, including a July quadruple shooting that killed a 25-year-old man shortly after 1:30 a.m., according to Walnut Creek police.

The number of reported incidents rose to 20 throughout 2022, including several fights inside and outside the establishment, public intoxication, the brandishing of weapons including knives and guns, DUI, assault with a deadly weapon and possession of firearms.

While Spoontonic logged only seven calls for police service — including public intoxication, possession of firearms, assault, multiple fights, and possession of cocaine for sale — from January to May 2023, one of those calls was prompted by a Spoontonic employee who activated the venue’s “panic hold-up alarm.” After an intense fight erupted between 40 people, police said one of the bouncers helped a suspect discard a firearm and evade officers.

However, only three of those incidents occurred within the last six months, and no calls to police were reported at Spoontonic during the past 90 days.

Jaz Walia, Spoontonic’s manager who has handled day-to-day operations since 2009, said those statistics show progress is already happening after he started introducing cover charges, increasing certain liquor prices and hiring five security guards to monitor both inside and outside the venue.

Starting Friday, he said the bar will also stop hosting live DJs and explore adding a jukebox or even a karaoke machine to the space.

“It was smooth sailing until the pandemic happened, and everything shifted — there’s only so much we can do, and I think we’re doing good,” Walia said. “I’m willing to do whatever I can to keep this business alive — I’ve invested too much money, too much time, too much blood, sweat and tears. We want to succeed.”

Customers Liz Bear, left, and her husband Brandon Bear enjoy a couple drinks at the Spoontonic Lounge in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

Additionally, Walia said he felt the police statistics paint a misleading picture of their business, and ignored increased calls to other local bars nearby.

Between March 2021 and April 2023, Walnut Creek Police Lieut. Bruce Jower said the department tallied 61 responses to Retro Junkie, an ’80s-themed bar closer to the city’s downtown, and only five incidents at Massés Sports Bar & Grill.

Despite the recent downturn at Spoontonic, Jower said the bar failed to seriously suggest any formal plan to improve security, especially since nearly 67% of police calls are made without the business’ knowledge, according to Jower.

“We would have good, productive conversations on how to remedy certain situations,” Jower said, “but at the end of the day, nothing that we could see was changing.”

Walnut Creek’s Planning Commission unanimously voted Thursday night to force the bar to close its doors by midnight after hearing more than two hours of testimony, but Ajit Ahluwalia, Spoontonic’s owner and Jaz’s father, said he plans to appeal the decision to the City Council within 10 days after he receives the final resolution.

“They need to understand they cannot play with our lives — this is a small, family business,” Ahluwalia said, adding that he was only given a 10-day notice that the commission would discuss the issue. “If everything has improved in 2023, why the hell do you want to cut the hours now? I cannot survive if they are reduced like this.”

This isn’t the first time the Walnut Creek Planning Commission has intervened in operations at local watering holes.

After a troubled history dating back to at least 2014, Crogan’s Sports Bar & Grill was forced to stop serving alcohol after midnight, due to years of history that included hundreds of police calls and suspended liquor license. Within weeks of that change, the Irish pub announced it would serve its final last call in January 2017.

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While closing two hours earlier than usual may not seem like a massive difference, Spoontonic’s lead bartender Dani St. Pierre, who has worked there since April 2014, reported that roughly 70% of their revenue is collected during that time.

“We believe we are on the right track and I’ve seen a downtick in bad behavior,” St. Pierre said, adding that her staff actively tries to avoid over-serving patrons and kick people out when they start misbehaving. “Please give us a chance to show you that our changes are working.”

Ahluwalia worries his business is being unfairly targeted to set an example to other local establishments. But Commissioner Peter Lezak said the changes assigned to Spoontonic are not without precedent. He said the commission has reduced hours for a number of establishments, which later returned with detailed security plans and positive track record within a year. He wants to see that trend continue at Spoontonic, too, before any consideration to re-extend hours.

“We do want the business to succeed — I think that was the general consensus of the discussion — and we’re trying to give them some advice, without directing them to hire certain professionals or to behave in a particular way,” Lezak said.

While Commissioner Brandt Andersson conceded that Spoontonic was addressing these issues “very late in the game,” the recent improvement won his support.

“Maybe that’s just coincidence, maybe it’s a trend — I’m not sure,” Andersson said, “but I would not be averse to giving Spoontonic a better chance of surviving economically.”

Yet, the final midnight closure was still too lenient for Commissioner Bob Pickett. While acknowledging that other early closures approved by the commission proved to be a fatal move for other Walnut Creek establishments, he said that was simply a byproduct of the city enforcing it’s strict permit conditions.

“I think our society is becoming too tolerant of bad behavior,” Pickett said. “To put it in a 2-year-old’s terms, ‘Spoontonic needs a timeout.’”

Customers drink in the bar at the Spoontonic Lounge in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)