Dec 19, 2023 - Food and Drink

New North Carolina law could cost businesses thousands of dollars

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best cocktail bars in charlotte the-crunkleton-charlotte-bar-and-restaurant

A new North Carolina law will subject bars that serve temperature-controlled food to the same standards as restaurants.

Catch up quick: House Bill 125, which Gov. Roy Cooper signed on Sept. 29, amended the definition of a bar. Previously, bars could serve limited food menus without inspections, leaving customers unprotected beyond good faith in the establishment at which they were eating and drinking.

  • A bar is now defined as an establishment with a permit to sell alcohol, but it cannot prepare or serve food that requires time or temperature control for safety. These establishments will need a health department permit for food service.
  • Bars may still include garnishes on drinks and sell unopened original commercial packages, such as a bag of chips or pretzels.

Why it matters: While the new law is designed to ensure people are eating safe food at these establishments, it will cost business owners thousands of dollars to meet the same standards restaurants are held to, according to North Carolina business owners.

  • The onus of additional oversight comes at a time when food prices remain high, and restaurants continue to operate on thin margins.

Flashback: House Bill 768, which went into effect in July 2022, removed the requirement for customers to become “members” at private bars in North Carolina, as Axios’ Katie Peralta Soloff reported.

Yes, but: Private bars were not subject to inspections. As soon as the definition changed in 2022, it was only a matter of time until the inspections would become part of the equation, Lynn Minges, North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association president & CEO, tells Axios.

  • “When restaurants are built, they know automatically the standards to which they have to build their facilities and so they do that from the ground up as a part of the plan,” Minges says. “The challenge with this is it came into being and now [bars have] got to go back and retrofit.”
  • Having to do so will be a financial burden for some bars.
  • “The rigors of complying with health department standards are very intense, but rightly so,” Minges says.

State of play: Mecklenburg County public health officials say there are potentially 268 impacted businesses, based on Alcohol Beverage Control board and department records.

  • The county began sending letters altering bars on Nov. 1. Health department staff have also been calling and emailing bars. The letter asks businesses to contact Mecklenburg County Environmental Health to determine an establishment’s status and whether it needs a permit. The county is still working to contact all bars, per a release.
  • Bars that haven’t previously held a permit through Mecklenburg County environmental health must submit architectural plans to the county. Bars that had a permit by Sept. 1, 2012 may request an onsite field plan review by contacting the county.
  • Public health inspection certificates must be prominently displayed at these businesses.

What they’re saying: “Public Health’s leading role is to keep our community safe, and this change in law will help us to do that,” Raynard Washington, Mecklenburg County public health director, said in a statement.

By the numbers: Upfitting the Crunkleton in Elizabeth, which is technically a bar, to meet the new standards should cost less than $50,000 owner Gary Crunkleton tells Axios.

  • “We are optimistic that the necessary adjustments are minimal,” Crunkleton says. He’s going through consultations to determine what needs to be done to meet the new standard.
  • Randy Wilson, a Wake County bar and restaurant owner, told the News & Observer he worries that extra expenses like extra seats or a new freezer could cost “thousands of dollars.”

Steve Martin, who owns Streetcar Bar + Bites and Runaway in Wesley Heights, says the buildout for his two new spots had been completed by the time the legislation passed. Martin, who moved here from Murrells Inlet, S.C., says he was surprised North Carolina didn’t already require inspections.

Of note: Mecklenburg County will provide guidance to assist bars with the transition. Business owners can also contact Mecklenburg County Environmental Health at 980-314-1620 to speak with a plans examiner about their status.

  • NCRLA will offer webinars, advice from experts about how to comply, as well as trainings and best practices on food safety, Minges says.

What’s next: The law is effective Jan. 1. Businesses must be compliant by March 27, per the N&O.


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