A Buckhead cigar club’s owner was arrested Feb. 26 on accusations of selling alcohol without a state license, following an inspection related to the Atlanta Police Department’s concerns about the Pharr Road corridor as a local crime hot spot.

The crackdown at Prince’s Room at 309 Pharr Road — including a state order prohibiting further alcohol sales — stems from APD and community concerns that improperly licensed businesses are attracting a criminal element to late-night venues and sparking some of the past year’s spike in gun violence. An announcement of the Prince’s Room crackdown was cheered for that reason at a March 2 meeting of Neighborhood Planning Unit B, though APD has offered no evidence connecting the club to violent crime. That’s the case for some other frequently named businesses in the area, including one that Senzer criticized for citing crime as a reason to move out.

“This is wonderful news,” said NPU B chair Nancy Bliwise after Maj. Andrew Senzer, commander of Buckhead’s Zone 2 APD precinct, announced the Prince’s Room bust. “On behalf of Garden Hills, thank you so much,” added George Heery, an NPU board member from the Garden Hills Civic Association. “That is great news.”

Prince’s Room did not immediately reply to an email and its phone number went to a voicemail box that did not accept messages. 

A seating area of Prince’s Room as seen in a 2019 photo on the cigar club’s Facebook page.

According to Senzer and an APD incident report, Prince’s Room was among businesses along Pharr Road visited by the police License and Permits Unit the week of Feb. 22. According to the report, the club had a city alcohol license, but lacked a state alcohol license. The city license “clearly states that one is not good without the other license,” the report says.

Based on that observation, APD and other authorities executed a search warrant Feb. 26 around 11 p.m. Patrons were asked to leave while officers searched for alcohol sales evidence. Officers seized 175 bottles of liquor, 102 bottles of wine, 65 beers and two bottles of Champagne, according to the report, as well as receipts for the sale of alcohol. The report says officers also found a receipt indicating the business had purchased some alcohol at a package store instead of from a wholesaler, which would be illegal or, as Senzer called it, a “no-no.”

Prince Omaotayo, identified by APD as the owner, was arrested and charged with selling alcohol without a license and keeping and storing alcohol without a license, according to the report. He was transported to the Atlanta city jail. 

The Georgia Department of Revenue’s Alcohol & Tobacco Division issued a cease-and-desist order to the business, according to DOR spokesperson Jessica Simmons. “The order directed the business to immediately cease and desist in the sale of alcoholic beverages at the location because the business did not have the proper licensing to do so,” she said.

Simmons said DOR by law cannot comment on the business’s alcohol tax status, but noted that the state requires taxes “to be collected on all retail sales of alcohol, regardless of whether a seller is properly licensed.”

In addition, according to the report, the business was cited by city fire marshals for lack of a posted occupancy limit and was issued a 10-day “correction notice” by the Fulton County Board of Health for unspecified violations. The county did not immediately respond to a request for details.

Pharr Road business concerns

The section of Pharr between Buckhead Village and Garden Hills has been the scene of several brazen shootings in roughly the past year, making it one of the neighborhood’s crime hot spots. Most of those crimes have not occurred at bars, clubs or restaurants. But neighborhood and police leaders have said they believe late-night crowds drawn to such businesses may be one factor in the crime. That raised the related concern that some crowds should not be there at all because of businesses that may not be properly licensed for late-night or alcohol service.

Similar citywide concerns led the Atlanta City Council late last year to authorize a new regime of alcohol-license compliance audits on a sample of restaurants and package stores. And locally, the License and Permits Unit is part of the APD crackdown on the Pharr Road hot spot. Senzer, the Zone 2 commander, said that at least one other Pharr Road business is under licensing investigation.

“So the License and Permits Unit is doing their thing,” Senzer told NPU B. “I’ve got a lot of work for them to do in our area.”

However, the local crime discussions often involve implicating any and all late-night businesses without direct proof of wrongdoing or poor supervision. An example of the trickiness of doing so is Botanico Kitchen and Bar, which until recently operated a rooftop space atop Savi Provisions at 310 Pharr Road. 

Botanico was among the businesses frequently named by neighborhood leaders last summer as attracting “rowdy” or “hip-hop” crowds, but a Reporter review of police reports at the time found no serious crimes reported at two of those locations. Now Botanico says it is moving out partly because of the crime fear’s impacts on its business — a move that Senzer strongly criticized as untrue while implying Botanico had a management issue. Botanico’s owners in turn say the police commander is wrong.

Before shuttering on Feb. 21, Botanico’s owners posted an explanation on social media that they would relocate the business in part due to “the increase in criminal activity nearby and concerns about the safety and experience of our customers and employees.” In a written statement through a spokesperson, Savi Provisions did not directly address the crime concerns and noted the location was sold to a franchisee who “could not agree on the operation and terms” in lease negotiations with Botanico.

Botanico Kitchen and Bar’s closing announcement as posted on its Instagram account in February.

At the NPU meeting, Senzer blasted Botanico’s explanation. “Unfortunately, they drove the narrative they left because of crime… They didn’t leave because of crime. They left because they were forced out by the owner,” said Senzer, describing the business as frequently busy. “My guys are doing a really good job mitigating that [Pharr Road area crime] to the best of our ability.” He added that “hopefully the new tenant will be a little bit more responsible than the previous one.”

But Eduardo Rivera, one of the partners who own Botanico, says they were just being honest. In a phone interview, Rivera said lease negotiations were indeed an issue, but that crime concerns were a big factor in figuring out what kind of compromise would be financially worthwhile. Those concerns, he said, included two shootings near Botanico, one of which forced the staff to evacuate customers while police searched for the gunman.

“We’re concerned, first of all, for our safety,” said Rivera. “We don’t want to piss off anybody. We said what we said. The violence the way it’s been out there … I think it’s kind of dangerous they’re downplaying it, not being upfront about it.”

Rivera said that since opening in 2019, Botanico had no issues more serious than a couple of noise complaints and a pushing-and-shoving type fight that was handled by in-house security. “We always tried to be as responsible as we could,” he said.

Rivera asked that the specific new location for Botanico remain secret for now, but confirmed it is within the city of Atlanta.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.