Bar Baffled

In Eat, October 2020 by Max TrujilloLeave a Comment

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Dear Restaurant Guru,

We like to go to all kinds of bars but I simply don’t understand how some are open and others aren’t allowed. I keep hearing that it depends on how a bar is classified on its liquor license. Can you explain what the difference is in, let’s say, Killjoy that’s allowed to be open, versus Atlantic Lounge or Dram & Draught? Can a bar just start serving food and open up again?

Sincerely, Bar Baffled

Dear Bar Baffled,

I am baffled, too. It would seem arbitrary to close bars but allow restaurants and breweries to heed safety regulations in order to serve food and drinks, as if our government is taking the safety responsibilities away from bar owners before they even have a chance.

Technically speaking, North Carolina doesn’t have bars; it has restaurants and private clubs that sell liquor. Selling food helps keep some bars open, and certain clubs, like Killjoy, have full kitchens. But simply adding a food component isn’t that easy, as one of the benchmarks of being open in phase 2 required private clubs to have already served food to some extent before the pandemic shutdown. Private clubs that attempted to open by adding food sales were threatened with losing their liquor licenses if they weren’t fully compliant with phase 2 regulations. If bars truly want to pivot to adding food sales, there are health inspection requirements, changes to the business license, fire suppression installations and other considerations that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s just not what many bar owners opened their businesses for in the first place.

Rather than changing all bars into restaurants, though, let’s focus on why they’re closed. What’s the motivation? Fear and money are always good motivators.

For fear, we’ve seen the throngs of people outside bars on Glenwood South not wearing masks and not socially distancing. This definitely doesn’t slow the spread COVID-19 and these are a few scenarios where unsafe behavior put enough fear out there for Gov. Cooper’s administration to decide to eliminate the notion of reopening bars altogether. Sadly, that’s “so American” of us, like when someone doesn’t pick up their dog’s poop on the beach and no more dogs are allowed, or someone throws a glass bottle onto a football field and now, only plastic cups can be used at stadiums.

What about money? 

In North Carolina, all liquor sales and revenues are handled by the state. I did a little digging on the publicly accessible website and found that, from only January to August, North Carolina is up about 15 percent, or $120 million, in liquor revenues over 2019. As a comparison,
I went back to 2013 and found that, each year, we average a 7 percent growth in liquor sales. Our estimated increase in revenue this year is about $180 million over last year, double the increase in growth and a lot more money than what’s typically earned.

Perhaps that large uptick in revenue could be used to help out the small business owners that were forced to close? Wouldn’t that be a novel idea? Don’t hold your breath, bartenders.

It’s easy to say “no” in difficult situations but harder to truly evaluate situations and think critically about solutions. There are solutions that restaurants are already implementing, including placing tables 6 feet apart, wearing masks and restricting guests to their specific seats. Even patio restrictions have relaxed, so more outside space can be used for dining.

Would bar owners and staff heed these rules? And would bar guests want to go to bars where they have to sit in their seats the whole time? Unfortunately, the lawmakers have made that decision for us, despite Cooper’s administration being sued by nearly 200 NC bar owners who want to be allowed to reopen. 

The long and short of it is, if our food and beverage industry hopes to survive, our government has to make some changes to offer help. The fear will always be there, but apparently, so is the money. So, I see two paths state officials can choose from: either they compensate those forced to shutter with financial assistance or let them reopen with regulations. 

Right now, bars are on the brink of bankruptcy by getting neither. 

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