In the vast expanse of small businesses that have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdown, perhaps none have fared as poorly as North Carolina’s bars. While many restaurants and wine shops have been able to pivot to curbside pickup and delivery, North Carolina bars have found themselves hobbled by laws that forbid sale of liquor drinks or cocktails for carryout.
Like its neighbors South Carolina and Virginia, liquor sales in North Carolina are almost completely controlled by a state-owned monopoly, the ABC. Early on in the pandemic the ABC announced a liquor buyback, allowing shuttered bars and restaurants to sell unused inventory back to the ABC in order to recoup some money. (It should be noted that the buyback came with a caveat — a 5% restocking fee that will not be refunded when businesses go to restock their supplies down the road, a move that many in the industry saw as a slap in the face.)
Virginia recently allowed the sale of to-go cocktails during the COVID-19 shutdown, but despite persistent lobbying from North Carolina’s bar and restaurant industry, the North Carolina legislature has so far declined to follow suit.
It’s no secret that the profit margin on sales of beer, wine, and liquor often make the difference between a restaurant surviving or closing, but for speciality cocktail bars like Durham’s Kingfisher, Charlotte’s Dot-Dot-Dot, or Chapel Hill’s famed bar the Crunkleton, liquor drinks are their bread and butter.
“Over 90% of our sales are alcohol,” Kingfisher co-owner Sean Umstead said in a recent interview.
The North Carolina legislature recently convened to pass an emergency COVID-19 relief bill, and language was inserted into the House version of the bill that would have allowed bars to sell cocktails to-go under strict conditions — two cocktails per customer, in a container sealed with tape to indicate if the drink had been opened, to be transported home in the trunk of the customer’s vehicle.
“I can mix cocktails to-go personally and assume all the risk myself” without having to bring in staff, Umstead said. “Being able to sell the complete cocktail would pay my rent. If bars are able to generate any revenue it would mean being able to reopen.”
Opposition in the North Carolina Senate killed any chance of the to-go cocktail provision making it into the final bill.
“My sense is the Republican Senate Caucus needed more time to find consensus on this bill compared to their House counterparts,” Senator Jay Chaudhuri, a Raleigh Democrat, explained.
In media interviews over the past week Senate Republicans have indicated that there is a possibility for the to-go provision to be included in a future standalone alcohol bill, but as the state begins steps to reopen it may strike some legislators as unnecessary going forward.
Senator Chaudhuri, who sponsored to-go cocktail language in the Senate version of the Covid-19 relief bill, is eager to provide assistance for North Carolina’s bars.
“First and immediately, we should pass the cocktails to-go provision,” he emphasized. “Second, we should look at prorating ABC permit fees by reducing the fee based on the weeks or months that a restaurant or bar can prove that it was closed. Finally, we should seriously consider some kind of stabilization fund that will provide relief to these bars and restaurants struggling to stay afloat.”
“A few of these ideas can help mitigate the economic damage our bars and restaurants are experiencing,” he added.
[Ed. note: Eater Carolinas did not receive responses after multiple requests for comment from the offices of both Senator Brent Jackson, R-District 10, and Pat Ryan, communications director for Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger and the Senate Republicans.]
For Kingfisher’s Umstead the failure to pass the to-go provision was taken personally.
“It was really disheartening. I understand that the legislature needed to pass a relief bill and this was an issue delaying passage, but the fact that anyone has a problem is unreasonable,” he lamented.
“It means that we have to continue running Kingfisher as a business that is completely detached from its product. No industry, restaurants included, has been hit like bars have, especially in states that refuse to allow to-go sales,” Umstead claimed.
It remains to be seen if to-go sales will make it into future legislation, or even if a standalone alcohol bill will come up for consideration in the North Carolina Legislature. In the meantime bars across the state continue to struggle to come up with a formula to survive the shutdown.
Umstead had a message for state leaders. “The Legislature needs to get over their concerns about to-go drinks. We aren’t moonshiners,” he said.
“Bars may never return to the environment that made them profitable businesses,” he went on to explain. “We rely on volume to make the financials work. Fifty percent capacity is only doable with rent relief, significant price increases, or finding other revenue streams. The North Carolina government needs to decide if they want us here when this is over.”
“If the public wants us to survive, we need them to contact their legislators,” Umstead continued. “If they don’t take action we will disappear.”