Texas Restaurant Association Seeks to Expand Definition of 'Restaurant' to Include Some Bars

As the sign says, the Landing is an upscale dive with good food and cocktails.
As the sign says, the Landing is an upscale dive with good food and cocktails. Taylor Adams
There's a segment of local bar owners who feel they are being unfairly restricted by Gov. Greg Abbott's June 26 executive order that mandated they shut down.

While restaurants are allowed 50% indoor capacity, outdoor seating, plus food and mixed-drinks to-go — several restaurants recently reported the latter has sustained their business the past few months — bars are simply shuttered.

Lakewood Landing is a good example of a bar that could benefit from a slight tweak in the wording of the executive order. In addition to cocktails and beer, the bar is popular for its wings, burgers, award-winning baked goods and house-made corn dogs that are a favorite for late night revelers.

“This issue has bugged us since day one,” says Jordan Lowery of Lakewood Landing. “Our certificate of occupancy for the city of Dallas lists us as a restaurant without drive-thru service. So, in the eyes of the city, for business purposes, we are a restaurant. But, because we qualify for the 51% threshold, the state views us as a bar.

“We were abiding by the seating and social distancing guidelines,” Lowery says, “though we would not currently have enough seating to host the entire First Baptist choir.”

The Texas Restaurant Association is petitioning the state of Texas to expand the criteria concerning what defines an establishment as a bar versus a restaurant. Currently, Executive Order No. GA-28 defines restaurants as businesses “that have less than 51% of their gross receipts from the sale of alcoholic beverages.”

All other businesses with a TABC permit are treated like a bar and, as of June 26, were required to close for all service (again).

The TRA wants to amend that executive order, which could then allow some 1,500 “bars” across the state to reopen and re-employ upward of 35,000 workers.

Per the TRA petition:

“Many of these businesses look and feel like a restaurant in every practical sense and are regulated as restaurants at the local level. Further, many of them have invested significant resources to retrain staff, change their floorplan to require social distancing, and purchase PPE for their employees and guests. These are not the businesses that had large crowds at the bar, and yet, they were closed with a few hours’ notice.”

Following are the three specific criteria the TRA is asking the state to allow in order to qualify a business as a restaurant:

1. Has a permanent kitchen on its premises with an exhaust hood and fire suppression system

2. Has the kitchen operational during all hours that the business is open, with multiple entrees available for consumption on the premises, and

3. Only serves patrons who are seated in accordance with the social distancing protocols for restaurants.

The TRA also points out that some restaurants cross the 51% threshold simply because they sell higher-end wine and cocktails, not because they function as a bar. (These criteria suggested by the TRA are not related to the lawsuit filed in conjunction with the Texas Bar and Nightclub Association.)

Lakewood Landing fits all three of the expanded “restaurant” criteria. Their kitchen is permanent and they have an exhaust system and fire suppression, both currently validated.

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The patio at The Grapevine Bar
Kathy Tran
Michelle Honea of The Grapevine Bar continues to struggle through these uncharted waters, trying to keep her business afloat and at the same time doing what’s best for her customers and employees in the long-term.

“I think the bars that are on TV and in the press I've seen are really hurting our argument,” Honea says. “They can't just open. We have TABC that controls us. It’s not like a beauty salon. It's embarrassing to those of us who run bars professionally, with dignity and concern about the well-being of the public, to see these other bars out there violating orders, refusing to allow patrons to wear masks in their bars, promoting $1 drinks, not following the opening protocols, opening against the order, etc.

“It is completely irresponsible, and it's not winning us points with the governor or the public. They are damaging any argument we have that we can open responsibly and that we're not part of the problem. A few bad actors are out there as the face of our industry in Texas when most of us are doing our best to do the right thing.”

Honea wants to see bars be able to use their patios just like restaurants and to be allowed to serve food and drinks to go.

Honea also says the recent closure order came with too little warning: “Why not announce on Monday that we are forced to shut down? We all bought thousands of dollars in inventory and supplies to get us through the weekend, or longer. Our government had said, ‘We aren’t going backwards,’ only to be shut down on a Friday morning.”

The neighborhoods themselves might be the key factor in keeping the neighborhood bar afloat through these times. The state just has to give them the ability to do so.

The TRA reports that as of midday Monday, 2,817 Texans have sent 8,544 emails to the governor and their legislators about this issue. 
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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.

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