Following a “show-cause” hearing Thursday, the Hinesville City Council revoked the alcohol and business licenses of Island Vybez at 728 E. Oglethorpe Highway.
The trial-like hearing was led by City Attorney Linnie Darden III. A court reporter was present, and both sides called witnesses. Island Vybez owner Aaron Whyte was not represented by counsel, but defended himself during the two-hour hearing.
Witnesses called by Darden included a former Island Vybez employee, an agent with the Georgia Department of Revenue, a Hinesville Police detective, the Hinesville fire marshal, Hinesville’s tax and license coordinator and the owner of the Econo Lodge, which is co-located with Island Vybez. Whyte called a current and former employee as witnesses. A third witness failed to show up.
“Whether this (business) license is extended, suspended or revoked is entirely up to this council,” Darden began, concluding he recommended suspension or revocation.
He listed license violations, some of which he said could lead to criminal charges. He said the restaurant’s Class II license requires that 60 percent of sales be food, but quarterly alcohol sales reports showed food sales under the required amount. Reports were also late each month, and at least one appeared to have been copied from the previous quarter’s report.
He said there was evidence Whyte’s restaurant had not been serving food since October. There were violations noted by the fire marshal and noise complaints about the restaurant that drew HPD officers, he said. Darden said there were also reports of alcohol being sold to minors and evidence that Whyte was purchasing alcohol from non-licensed distributors.
The employee called as a witness by Darden said no food was served at the restaurant while she worked there from October through December. When she started work, she said there was a sign that said the restaurant was closed for renovations, but no work was done while she worked there. She said the kitchen was in operation, but rarely was any food stored there. Sometimes an employee would be sent to Walmart to buy bags of frozen chicken wings or fries, she said.
Witnesses testifying for Whyte said they didn’t know about the 60/40 food-to-alcohol requirement. One witness, who said he was hired as a cook, was vague responding to questions:
“Was alcohol ever served in the restaurant when there was no food in the kitchen to prepare?” Councilman Jason Floyd asked. The witness said he didn’t know.
Councilman Keith Jenkins asked if he could say at no time was alcohol sold when food was not available. Whyte’s witness couldn’t answer.
In his own defense, Whyte said the accusations were false. He repeated that food was always served.
“Mr. Whyte insists there’s a conspiracy against him,” Darden said. “The issue is not whether he serves some food but whether 60 percent of his sales are food. The kitchen had to operate simultaneously with the club. I hope the council will not be fooled by his excuses. All we ask is that businesses follow the rules and tell the truth. I believe I’m going to recommend revocation of his license.”
Jenkins moved to revoke Whyte’s license, which was seconded by Councilman David Anderson. After the unanimous vote, Councilman Kenneth Shaw addressed Whyte.
“You brought this on yourself,” Shaw told Whyte. “The police department, the fire department and all these people here could have been home with their families if you had told the truth.”