A new study finds more than 1,000 bars across South Carolina could be at risk of shutdown if the state were to more tightly enforce its liquor license laws.
The South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association (SCRLA) sought the study after an administrative judge ruled last month a Columbia bar considered a nuisance by a nearby neighborhood should lose its liquor license for not operating a kitchen and not selling enough food to qualify under state law.
“If you look at the reality of it, there are bars, nightclubs and places that don’t open until 8 p.m., 9 p.m. at night and serve predominantly liquor and beverages,” said University of South Carolina food service professor Robin DiPietro, who conducted the study. “But, according to South Carolina law, there are only restaurants and no bars.”
In order for a restaurant to obtain a liquor license, state law requires a restaurant have a working kitchen and be “primarily and substantially engaged in the preparation and service of meals.” But DiPietro’s study found 1,022 of South Carolina’s more than 16,000 restaurants may not be in compliance with those requirements.
SCRLA is urging the state Department of Revenue to hold off on enforcing those rules until the original judge’s order is heard on appeal. The industry lobbying group warns more than 7,100 employees could lose their jobs if the same standard applied to all 1,022 bars, while governments could lose nearly $97 million in business and employee wage tax revenue.
The board approved a statement which said it “respectfully requests that appropriate enforcement officials delay enforcing that ruling until other avenues of appeal – such as legal, legislative and/or regulatory relief – especially focusing on a clarification of what exactly constitutes ‘normal mealtimes’ and the word ‘primarily’, are exhausted.”
DiPietro agreed the law’s wording is vague on how much food a restaurant must “primarily” serve to be incompliance. “Just because you force businesses to sell food does not mean the customers are going to purchase food,” she said. “And that’s why I think the law is not written for the current day and age.”
The Department of Revenue and State Law Enforcement Division have been lax in carrying out the requirements due to a lack of staff, according to attorney Brook Bristow. Bristow, who specializes in alcohol regulations, says last month’s ruling should be a wakeup call to bars not currently in compliance.
“This decision is what can happen on the enforcement side,” he said. “And it certainly is something that’s going to give a lot of people heartburn who are not necessarily following the law.”
Neighborhood groups around Columbia’s popular Five Points bar district argue the requirements should be used against nuisance businesses which abuse the law and only have a microwave as a food preparation area. The group have filed a similar