Bar owners whose businesses were shut down in the fight against COVID-19 are now offering food so they can reopen — but they’re going about it in starkly different ways.
Some bars in the state say they’re doing as little as serving customers food out of a Crock-Pot, while others say they’re going all out, spending thousands of dollars to buy sinks, stoves and refrigerators.
In Fort Lauderdale’s Flagler Village, the Glitch Bar converted from an adult arcade bar to an establishment that added sit-down food services inside and out. For the Glitch Bar menu, the owner wants to feature an Italian New Orleans-styled Muffuletta sandwich that contains olive salad, salami, ham, Swiss cheese, provolone and mortadella.
In Plant City, the PaddyWagon Irish Pub said it did little more than spend $13.99 on a Crock-Pot so customers can chow down on hot dogs, according to the News Service of Florida.
In March, Florida bars were among those caught in the sweeping business shutdowns ordered by Gov. Ron DeSantis as he sought to halt the spread of the coronavirus. It’s unclear exactly how many owners across South Florida are migrating to full-time food services so they can reopen and start earning money again.
For August, there were 1,657 applications filed statewide with the Department of Business and Regulation for food service permits. It’s not known how many came from sidelined bar owners.
Bar owners have gone on a regulatory roller-coaster ride: Many were allowed to reopen on June 5 after the governor allowed bars and other vendors licensed to sell alcoholic beverages to operate at 50% percent capacity. But customers had to be seated at tables. The limitations caused some restaurants to to charge customers a COVID-19 fee.
Weeks later, as COVID-19 cases surged, Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation ordered a statewide shutdown of businesses licensed to sell alcoholic beverages for drinking on their premises, but were not licensed to offer food services.
Without citing any statistics or surveys, Halsey Beshears, the department secretary, blamed young adults for ignoring social distancing rules at bars. He said they created an environment to spread the virus.
Finding a way back
For many bar owners with no food service, that was the end for their businesses. But for some bars, the food service option is a start on the road to recovery.
Glitch Bar owner Dwight Slamp said he reopened two weeks ago after his “bar-cade” was closed since June.
The bar, which originally offered adults free pinball machines and video games and themed alcoholic beverages, now has tables for food service both inside and out.
He said the bar normally attracted 100 patrons a night before the pandemic. Now, local capacity restrictions keep the crowds to 25 people in the restaurant area and 25 in the arcade. He can seat 20 people outside.
“Normally we were a booming business before COVID — one of the hot places to go,” he said. “With COVID, it put a damper on that.”
For Glitch Bar, the food license came just in time. The plan is for a six-sandwich menu: Two types of Muffulettas, and four types of pressed sandwiches.
Slamp had to install separate sinks in his kitchen for hand washing and dishwashing, make sure the walls, ceiling and other surfaces were made of materials that could be easily cleaned, and submit a drawing of the layout to the DBPR for its approval.
“They sent out a gentleman to do the health code visit,” Slamp said. “He checked everything and made sure we were compliant.”
Closed for four months, Slamp said he is paying $14,000 a month for rent and another $5,000 monthly for insurance.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “You can’t even imagine the amount it costs. I don’t have a whole bunch of businesses. I don’t have the ability to walk away. This is my life. I have to do everything I can to keep it going. We are keeping it going.”
In the meantime, he’s upset with the absence of state and local financial support for the state’s bar and club businesses.
“No one addressed the nightclubs and bars that are shut down for months and months,” he said. “Hopefully there is light at the end of the tunnel. They’re talking about Phase 2 statewide and the [COVID] numbers decreasing. I think there will be many months of uncertainty.”
At a roundtable of brewery owners in St. Petersburg on Thursday, the governor assured his audience that he wants to reopen the state’s bars and breweries and allow them to resume serving alcohol soon, as long as the state’s coronavirus numbers continue to decline.
“We really want to get to ’yes’ on this,” DeSantis said. He said he sympathized with those who suffered financial losses and were forced to furlough employees. But he offered no timetable for bars to reopen.
“It’s going to be my decision,” he said, adding “there will probably be an order” from Beshears. “I’ve told him I want every business in Florida operating, and we pretty much have 99% of everyone else up and running.”
“As a matter of impression, it sure looks like they are leaning in that direction to try and get this sector and others open for business,” said Geoff Luebkemann, senior vice president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association in Tallahassee.
While they wait, bar owners with the financial wherewithal are petitioning the state for permits to install food operations and start serving customers again.
Beshears, while on a listening tour with bar owners around the state, “informed them that if they are eligible to hold food service licenses, that this option is available,” a DBPR spokesman said Friday.
But private attorneys and their clients are puzzled by the line of demarcation the state has drawn between alcohol and food sales. And there is a question about whether all of the bars seeking to install food operations are on a level playing field.
“Is there a real distinction between selling food and selling alcohol?” said Robert Lewis, a hospitality lawyer at Spiritus Law in Coral Gables. “Realistically, what is this all about? There is a balancing act the state is trying to do. The issue is, where do you draw the line? It’s creating a lot of stress for bar operators.”
According to the News Service of Florida, a Plant City pub owner did little more than set up a Crock-Pot to cook food at the end of her bar and still obtained a food permit.
“That’s a question for the enforcement authority,” Luebkemann told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “There is a review feature for obtaining a food service license. I don’t know if that person’s comment was in jest.”
More than state permits needed
The food idea isn’t for everybody.
“We have some clients that are small-bar operators who really don’t have the financial ability to pivot and make the conversion,” said Lewis. “So they close their doors. We have clients that have invested and are doing the best they can to survive.”
“The brewers and the tap rooms are very invested in getting things back and getting things open and utilizing the food-service establishment licensing,” he added.
But the process to get there doesn’t begin and end with the state issuing a food-service permit.
Luebkemann, who once headed the DBPR’s hotel and restaurant division, said bar owners need restaurant equipment, a proper layout, food safety certifications, training “and the physical ability to support food service and food safety.”