A Dash of Confusion: Law Enforcement and Businesses React to ABC Reforms

Sep 10, 2019

The state of North Carolina loosened up restriction on alcohol sales in legislation that took effect this month. One area that's stirred up a bit of confusion pertains to sales of mixed drinks. While the definition of "a bar" remains unchanged, a new rule allowing distilleries to sell cocktails on-site has muddled the situation. 

It’s an everyday occurrence in North Carolina. Someone walks into their friendly neighborhood drinking establishment, they’re asked if they’re a member, and depending on the answer -- they flash an ID or pay their club dues, usually a dollar.  

Em Messer greets guests at Little Jumbo in Monford. Messer says usually folks comply. But she often gets puzzled reactions from out-of-towners who aren’t familiar with North Carolina’s law. 

“Flat out refusing to give us phone numbers, and then promptly leaving the bar being upset,” Messer said. “My favorite is when someone’s like, “‘Well I’m from New Orleans,’ And I’m like, ‘Well,‘this is Asheville, welcome in!”

Little Jumbo co-owner Chall Gray says that comes at a cost to local businesses’ bottom lines. 

“We’re a major tourist destination. For any business, that’s around Asheville, there’s going to be a certain percentage of people who are coming in who are tourists. It’s a large knowledge barrier for people to come in and to explain ‘you have to become a member, but it’s only a dollar. It’s a barrier to entry and every barrier to entry has a cost associated with it.”

Gray says he estimates it costs about $10,000 annually to keep his watering hole in line with the state’s regulations. That sum includes the cost of the software to store members’ information and keep someone posted at the door to sign in guests. 

But the rule making businesses that sell mixed drinks operate as social clubs might be on its way out, according to Al Bottego, chief law enforcement officer for Asheville’s Alcoholic Beverage Control board.  

“I think that the bar thing is inevitable,” Bottego said. “It’s part of the whole modernization they’re doing right now, but for the time being, it doesn’t exist.”

Changes to the state’s alcohol sales regulations that took effect this month have stirred confusion about what now constitutes a bar. 

A draft version of the House's legislation offered an official definition of a bar, but the language was scrapped in the final measure that passed. 

“What it really comes down to, is I think the state introduced the word bar to see how the public perceived it,” Bottego said. 

Bottego estimates the state will do away with the “social club” provision in four years or less. 

Because the final version of Senate Bill 290 did implement a change that complicates the issue. North Carolina distilleries are now allowed to sell cocktails on site, with a mixed drink permit. 

Though, rules implementing that haven’t been made official yet. 

“Everybody’s kind of in a holding pattern, as you would imagine, with a business, as quick as a rule or a law change comes down, they want to implement it, they want to make more money, they want to do business differently,” Bottego said. “We just don’t have any good answers right now.”

Bottego says before the change, a mixed beverage permit didn’t exist. 

“They always do step two before they do step one. So we now have laws, but we don’t have rules,” Bottego said. “They’re, I would hope, locked in a room somewhere, because they’re now a law you can violate but there's not a rule that tells you how not to violate it.” 

While distillers await those guidelines on how to start serving up concoctions -- owners of drinking establishments like Chall Gray at Little Jumbo are miffed. 

“What is a bar then, if not us? If not us, whom?” Gray said, with a laugh. 

Gray says it underscores the complicated and sometimes contradicting information he receives from the ABC and the Alcohol Law Enforcement agency, or ALE.

“I’ve had instances where I’ve had an agent from one branch tell me something that was in direct opposition to an agent from the other branch,” Gray said. “It puts me as a business owner  in the position of really just trying to do the best I can to figure out how they want it done.” 

That’s why -- in addition to stocking the bar with spirits and bitters -- Gray keeps a binder with his most recent emails from officials in Raleigh. He says if an agent comes in for an inspection and there’s disagreement, he cites the latest information he’s been given to keep from paying more fines.