Tuesday, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission relaxed some restrictions to offer a pathway for the state’s bars to reopen as restaurants amid the pandemic. While some North Texas club owners herald the move as a godsend, others say it isn’t a golden ticket so much as fool’s gold.
Under the new amendments, bars are allowed to apply for a food and beverage certification to open as a restaurant, provided they earn 51% or more of sales in food. But Chris Polone, owner of Fort Worth’s The Rail Club Live, said he thinks it could trap owners with no restaurant experience into failing.
“It takes restaurants months if not years to become profitable in this,” he said. “So you’ve got a bunch of mom and pop businesses that are broke as a joke right now and thinking that this is their only option to open up, when in all reality it’s going to cost them way more money and it puts a target on their back the size of the state of Texas.”
Many bar owners statewide have criticized the state’s alcoholic beverage regulatory agency for its inability to provide meaningful options to help their businesses survive the pandemic. While the TABC has packaged the amendments as an olive branch, critics say it’s too flimsy to hold up to scrutiny.
In June, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order that forced the state’s standalone bars to close for the second time in an effort to prevent further COVID-19 spread.
TABC rules, however, allowed them to reopen as restaurants, with several stipulations. On Tuesday, the agency reversed course on some of those requirements; now, bars seeking to reopen as restaurants do not need a commercial kitchen. Also, prepackaged food is acceptable and revenue from food trucks can be included in sales. Interested bar owners must register for a food and beverage certificate and pay a fee.
TABC spokesman Chris Porter said more than 700 bar owners have applied for the certification since July. That total now includes Patrick Blancas, owner of Denton bars East Side and Miss Angeline’s.
On top of an increased focus on food truck sales, Blancas said they will promote miscellaneous items from local vendors, such as T-shirts and baked goods, to help offset alcohol revenue. In addition, he said he's happy that his employees will be able to return to work.
“Ultimately, I feel that it is a step in the right direction,” he said, “because we’ve finally been given some sort of insider guidance to what we can and can’t do.”
Other owners are dubious that they’ll be able to make more than 51% of the revenue in food sales, however.
Jeff Brightwell, owner of Dot’s Hop House & Cocktail Courtyard in Deep Ellum, said that even though his business has an extensive menu, it would be hard to strike that balance between food and alcohol sales. To hit that mark, staff would have to closely monitor customers’ food and beverage intake, he said.
“We have whiskeys on our shelf that go for up to $65 a drink,” Brightwell said. “If I had 10 people who are spending 51% of their dollars on food, and one guy walks in and orders two of those whiskeys, he’s just blown my whole ratio.”
After Abbott’s first bar closure order in March, Brightwell said he invested in revamping the business to meet safety guidelines. He installed Plexiglas dividers over the bar, stocked up on hand sanitizer and bought masks to hand out to customers. Then, he had to close once more.
Brightwell said the coronavirus case count could again skyrocket now that kids are returning to school, so he’d rather wait and see how that plays out before spending more money to reopen. Not only that, but it’s risky to do so just yet since the TABC could audit them at any moment, he said.
Polone said that he knows of multiple bar owners who reopened their businesses as restaurants before having to close because of an imbalanced audit of food versus alcohol sales. They lost their new certification and had their liquor license revoked, he said.
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As such, he said he won’t be purchasing a certification for The Rail Club; in fact, Polone said, his attorneys have advised him against it.
Polone has been a vocal opponent of the TABC and Abbott, staging multiple protests to challenge the bar shutdown order. Now, he has another demonstration set for Saturday, which he’s calling the "Come and Take it Unified Opening."
Around 1,000 bar owners from across the state are joining him, Polone said, and stringent safety guidelines will be enforced throughout. At this point, he added, it could be his last stand.
“We don’t have a choice,” Polone said of Saturday’s protest. “It’s either we open or we lose our business within the next month.”