Kiss Lounge is the first DC business of the Covid era to lose its liquor license over pandemic safety violations. In a March 17 order, the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board found that the Shaw nightlife spot committed several infractions. They include ignoring social distancing rules; operating over capacity and after permitted hours; allowing hookah use; and failing to enforce mask requirements. Most bizarrely, the spot reportedly set up a warning system that involved staffers barking like dogs to avoid law enforcement detection. Still—despite photographic evidence from an undercover investigator—owner Eyob Asbeha claims that his business has been following all of the pandemic rules.
“What they did was unfair, was unjustified. They’ve been targeting me for five years. They tried and tried and tried and couldn’t do it,” Asbeha says. Kiss has received various fines in the years before Covid. Then, last summer, the bar was cited twice for Covid violations such as after-hours service, employees not wearing masks, and lack of social distancing.
In October, the lounge had its liquor license suspended following a shooting that occurred during what appeared to be an illegal pop-up cannabis event. Police found bullet holes, shell casings, marijuana, and other drug paraphernalia on the scene, and investigators suspected that the owner lied about some aspects of the incident and the availability of camera footage, according to a Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration report. Nonetheless, Asbeha says “they couldn’t find any evidence that the shooting happened inside.” The liquor board allowed the business to reopen in November on the condition that it implement various security measures.
On January 27, police and ABRA investigators showed up at Kiss again after initially hearing music in the establishment past midnight. Asbeha claims they “couldn’t find anything.” As evidence, he shared a video with Washingtonian that he’d filmed of an argument between himself and ABRA investigator John Fiorentine. In the footage, Asbeha insists the establishment was closed, even as Fiorentine tells him he heard music, saw someone drinking, and watched people go out the back door. The investigator says he tracked down one of the people, who confirmed he had exited from the back door.
“Prove it to me,” Asbeha says at one point.
“Who’s the [liquor] board going to believe? John Fiorentine or you?,” Fiorentine says.
“Always you,” Asbeha says.
“Bingo. This tavern, I don’t mind shutting you down. We’ll do this again. Bingo bango boingo!,” says Fiorentine, doing a little dance. “You disrespect me when you lie to me.” Later, he calls the place “a dumpster fire of violations.” An investigative report from the evening includes a photo of a $476 receipt for food, Merlot, Hennessy, and other drinks dated past midnight as evidence.
In an interview with Washingtonian, Asbeha accuses Fiorentine of being the one violating the law for not wearing a mask. In the video, Fiorentine is wearing a “Black Lives Matter” mask though it slips below his nose in part of the footage.
Two days later, on January 29, ABRA sent an undercover investigator to Kiss after it had received complaints about unmasked patrons and excessive noise. At the door, the investigator found there were no security searches or contact-tracing. Inside, she reported that patrons were smoking hookah, crowding with more than six people at a table, and not wearing masks.
The investigator ordered a rum and Coke, but the server told her they were only serving shots, so she got a Patron Silver. She started taking photos and videos when a server approached and asked her who she was with. The investigator said she was waiting for people and drank her shot to avoid suspicion, according to the liquor board’s report. She was served after 10 PM and never offered a menu or food—both violations of DC’s Covid restrictions. Her supervisor instructed her to order another drink (one more shot of Patron), which she walked around with while taking more photos of the scene.
Later that evening, police and other ABRA investigators headed to Kiss. The undercover investigator noticed that the staff had set up what appeared to be a warning system, in which they barked like dogs when law enforcement approached. The lights came on, and an employee rushed to clear drinks from the tables, telling the undercover investigator to finish her drink immediately. (She hid it and “saved it for evidence.” Later, at ABRA headquarters, investigators tested the confiscated shot and found, yep, it was alcohol.)
When other police officers and the supervising ABRA investigator finally arrived around 11:40 PM, Asbeha met them out front and told them he had closed the place. Inside, however, a large crowd was congregated at the bar and at tables, not wearing masks or abiding by social distancing.
Asbeha continues to maintain that his business did nothing wrong. Even though there are photos of people not wearing masks and standing, he says, “everybody was wearing masks” and “the people standing were not standing,” they were just at high-top tables. Even though the investigator didn’t arrive until after 10 PM and has receipts time-stamped after 10 PM, Asbeha still claims to he was not serving alcohol after 10 PM. (His explanation: the investigators were secretly there as early as 7 PM and didn’t close their tab until after 10 PM.) He says he doesn’t know anything about any dog-like barking. The one thing Asbeha does admit to is allowing hookah. “There’s no law about hookah in DC,” he says. In fact, the Mayor’s current executive order requires hookah bars to remain closed.
Kiss was cited twice more for operating after-hours and interfering with an investigation. Asbeha claims no one was inside.
Asbeha says he takes Covid seriously. He says he’d installed plexiglass all over the establishment, provided masks to patrons, put hand sanitizer everywhere, and advised customers about the rules. “I have my parents, I have my kids,” he says.”I want us to be safe. I want it to be safe for everybody.”
The liquor board, though, didn’t buy Asbeha’s defense. “This case is not a mere ‘he-says, she-says’ case based on statements alone, but supported by physical evidence such as photographs, videos, and receipts,” the board order reads. While Asbeha claims he’s been punished more harshly than others, the liquor board notes Kiss’s history of serious violations and the attempts to avoid detection. It’s only the 12th time since 2010 that the DC liquor board has revoked a liquor license.
Kiss Tavern has 10 days to file an appeal. Asbeha says he’d like to fight back but that he can’t find a lawyer to take his case.
“I’m not a bad person,” he says. “I’m straightforward.”