|By Tamara El-Khoury, The Baltimore Sun|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
June 17, 2004 - Heather Rodenhizer and Beth Schull left their boyfriends at home last Thursday night to visit an Arbutus bar.
The two twenty-somethings from Pasadena found themselves girl-talking over drinks specially priced just for them. Every few minutes the DJ announced why: It was Ladies' Night at Fish Head Cantina.
For many bar owners, such promotions are obvious: Free admission and discounted drinks will attract women. And a bar full of women usually attracts men.
But while some view it as good marketing, others see it as a clear case of discrimination. Earlier this month, the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights ruled that ladies night is unfair because it does not treat men equally.
And many who attend ladies' nights around town call the whole thing silly.
"It's ridiculous," said Duane Loverde, 35, as he paused from his game of pool at Fish Head. "Guys know where we stand. Ladies' night is to bring women into the bar. Guys are going to go anyway."
Few states seem to take the matter seriously, saying they'll only enforce such rules when someone complains.
But when bar owners at Fish Head learned of the New Jersey ruling, they offered men their own drink specials on Ladies' Night to address any discrimination concerns. What they didn't know was that a similar case in Maryland touched on the issue a decade ago.
On July 16, 1992, James Schwanebeck went to Tully's Restaurant in Baltimore County and was charged full price for his drink while women paid half price.
He filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations alleging sex discrimination. An administrative law judge agreed, saying Tully's Ladies' Night violated Maryland's anti-discrimination code.
The 1995 ruling was case specific. Tully's eventually was ordered to cancel that Ladies' Night promotion and, among other penalties, told to refund Schwanebeck $4.50 (plus interest), according to the Sept. 20, 1995 ruling. Schwanebeck said he never saw the $4.50 refund but he didn't go looking for it either.
"I guess I'm a little bit of an activist and I felt it was an injustice and wanted to set the record straight," said Schwanebeck, 53, who lives in Towson.
When Mike Hyle took over as Tully's owner soon after the case, he continued the ladies' night tradition but set it up so both men and women paid the $5 cover charge. Ladies received two free drink coupons and Hyle made sure his staff gave them to any man who wanted the same discount. Hyle, who sold the bar in March, said no man ever asked for the drink coupons.
"Certain nights we have free dessert for children under 10 -- are we discriminating against a 12-year-old?" asked Diana Hamilton, who owns Tully's now and said she wouldn't fight over a scoop of ice cream.
There is no state law banning ladies' nights in Maryland. And the Maryland Commission on Human Relations can't act unless someone files a complaint. A lawyer for the agency said they have not had to make a similar decision since the 1995 case.
In New Jersey, the decision was released June 1 after state officials finished their investigation -- six years after a complaint was filed in 1998. A man said he paid a $5 cover charge to visit a bar while women weren't charged. The director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights agreed with the discrimination claim.
The decision has the weight of a superior court ruling but it doesn't apply to other ladies' night promotions. Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, said it could serve as a precedent in other cases, opening bar owners who hold ladies' nights to legal action if someone complains.
Similar rulings have been made in Iowa, California, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Even as the legality of ladies' nights is being challenged, the changing dynamics of the club scene are making weekday promotional nights less appealing.
"Bars and clubs are competing with the home like they've never had to before," said Amy Lorton, executive editor of Nightclub & Bar Magazine in Oxford, Miss. "People are staying at home and watching DVDs and fixing drinks at home."
Today's generation of workaholics expect to be swept away by flashy lights, pumping music and trendy DJs, Lorton said. Many bars and clubs are only seeing action Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Some owners choose only to open those days while others focus on their restaurant business during the off days.
As a result, she said, the old gimmicks aren't working as well as they used to. Ladies' night promotions typically are used on slower evenings, but that was when bars were filled most other nights of the week.
"Competition is so incredibly tight right now because of the limited amount of time people are going out," Lorton said. "So some of those old standard promotions aren't working."
At the Fish Head Cantina in Arbutus, owner Scott Fisher acknowledged that his two-week-old ladies' night promotion hasn't done much to bring in the crowds. And the poor turnouts are giving him second thoughts about the effort altogether.
But Lorton doesn't believe all promotional events for women will disappear even with the changing face of nightlife and a handful of discrimination cases.
"It's a proven fact, where women will go, men will follow," Lorton said. "It's an old thing -- it's been around forever. But it works."
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