Starting next year, bars in Mecklenburg County that serve any type of food will be required to obtain a health department permit. Passed on Oct. 2, the new law will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024, but some bar owners in Charlotte say it will hurt them financially.
Passed as part of HB 125, the new law requires bars to undergo inspection to obtain a Food Service Establishment (FSE) operating permit if they prepare or serve food requiring temperature and time control. Bars that only sell pre-packaged foods like chips or candy will be exempt from the law, as will nonprofit country clubs.
The law follows up on legislation from 2022 that abolished the “private club” designation for bars that don’t make a certain percentage of their gross income from food sales. The former designation kept those establishments out of the purview of the health department.
According to a release from the county, staff at Mecklenburg County Public Health (MCPH) has been working to identify bars that will potentially be affected by the law. As of Dec. 15, MCPH had sent notification letters to 268 facilities.
“For these small businesses, it’s just one more cut that makes us bleed a little bit and makes it harder to run a profitable business,” said Paul Sires, co-owner of Starlight on 22nd, a small bar in Optimist Park that serves as an incubator for Charlotte creatives.
Starlight sells chicken tenders, pizza and fries, all of which are pre-cooked and frozen rather than made onsite. Sires said they keep these snacks on site because “it’s just not a smart business model and it’s not safe for your patrons” to offer alcoholic beverages with no food options. He fears that might come to an end with the enactment of the new law, however.
According to Sires, he and his family — partner Ruth Ava Lyons and their son, Orion Sires — would need to spend many thousands of dollars to bring their establishment up to code.
“We don’t have commercial air fryers because those things run $5,000 so it’s a little bit nuts,” Sires said of getting up to code by the new year. He expects he would also need to pay $2,000 for a commercial-grade refrigerator and the same for a freezer. A grease trap could cost them around $5,000.
“I’m hoping that there’s going to be some kind of leeway with this to give us some time because a month and a half is ridiculous,” Sires told Queen City Nerve.
What the new law says
It doesn’t appear that will be the case, according to an FAQ fact sheet released for bar owners by the county in December. “You should discontinue operating with food service until a permit has been issued” as of Jan. 1, the sheet states.
Without a permit, “a facility can’t open, prepare, or handle any food items for service to customers,” according to the fact sheet. “You may sell packaged chips or crackers as a snack. Individually portioned frozen meals may be sold if the customer purchases, opens the package and heats in a microwave available for use outside of the bar area.”
The health department is currently working to contact all potentially affected facilities and provide training and guidance for obtaining a permit.
If a facility has never held a Mecklenburg County FSE permit under any name, bar owners are responsible for starting the plan review process themselves, which includes hiring an architect or certified engineer to draw up plans to submit to Mecklenburg County Code Enforcement.
If the facility in question held an FSE permit in the past, even as a different business, the county will assign an inspector to contact the bar owner to ask additional questions and potentially conduct an in-field plan review.
If the inspector finds that a kitchen that had once been granted a permit has been altered or needs further alterations or equipment additions, then a list of items to correct will be shared to complete before a permit is issued, according to the fact sheet.
MCPH will charge a $250 fee for those establishments to receive a new permit, to be paid before the permit can be issued.
“Public Health’s leading role is to keep our community safe, and this change in law will help us to do that. I applaud state leaders for their collaboration and partnership,” said Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Dr. Raynard Washington in the county’s release.
“There are still exceptions to the new law, so my advice for the public is if they are eating food at a bar and have concerns,” he continued, “look for the Public Health Inspection Certificate as it must be prominently displayed.”
The impact on Charlotte bars
Tommy’s Pub in the Eastway Crossing Shopping Center sells food items that are prepackaged, precooked, inspected and approved for retail resale — mostly frozen pizzas but sometimes bean burritos, egg rolls, knishes and potato latkes — that staff would heat on a commercial-grade countertop oven.
Owner Jamie Starks told Queen City Nerve he was made aware of the changes on a phone call from MCPH in early December.
“They let me know I could no longer sell heated food of any kind without passing a Department of Health inspection, as it’s deemed unsafe for consumers,” Starks said. “However, I’m allowed to give it away for free — giving food away for free is somehow safe, though?”
As of press time, Queen City Nerve was still waiting on a response from the county about whether establishments that offer food for free still need to be inspected. We will update this story when that response is received.
It’s not just the so-called dive bars selling precooked foods that are affected by the new law. Idlewild, a cocktail bar in NoDa, has offered a small-plates menu since opening nearly five years ago.
Renowned local chef Alex Verica had run the food program using the kitchen’s induction stovetop until his departure for Florida earlier this year. Idlewild owner Vince Chirico told Queen City Nerve he had brought on another local chef who had created an entirely new menu and was ready to roll it out when they learned of the new law and its restrictions in November.
Chirico figured that bringing his kitchen up to code with the county would cost him more than half-a-million dollars — $100,000 for a hood and $500,000 to install a chase that runs through the apartment building above the establishment.
He scrapped the new menu. Idlewild will serve prepackaged meat, cheese and tinned fish from here on out.
“I’m surprised,” Chirico said. “It’s been this way for so long and a lot of people base their business model around this and it’s strange how they can just change it with a couple months notice for something that’s going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for a lot of people.”
Idlewild’s next-door sister bar, Fairweather, which permanently closed to make way for a new bar concept in November, made headlines over the summer when a customer fell ill after eating raw oysters at the establishment. Fairweather pointed to the purveyor/farmer of the oysters in question and emphasized that staff followed all safety and health guidelines for handling, storage, and service of oysters.
Following that incident, MCPH Director Washington cited the lack of regulation for what were once designated private bars, acknowledging that there were efforts at the state level to fix the issue.
“I’m happy to have a health inspection, it’s not about being under their purview,” Chirico told Queen City Nerve after the new legislation was passed, “it’s just about these changes to how we’ve done everything in our kitchen for years that I just can’t afford to change.”
Though introduced in February, language that changes the state’s definition of “bars,” meaning establishments that don’t need to be inspected by the local health department, was added to the bill in late September, just days before it was passed through the legislature.
Bars are now defined in state law as “an establishment with a permit to sell alcoholic beverages … and that does not prepare or serve food as defined in this Part other than beverage garnishes, ice, or food that does not require time or temperature control for safety.” The language was added to the bill on Sept. 22.
Food vendors also face new rules
Jackie DeLoach, owner of Hattie’s Tap and Tavern on The Plaza, has already stopped selling the Hot Pockets and other small, heated snacks her staff offered from behind the bar. DeLoach said an inspector with MCPH visited her bar and told her she could continue to offer the items if customers were allowed to heat them up for themselves.
“I don’t necessarily want to mix booze and microwaves,” she said, “so we put a vending machine in and that’s it.”
More relevant to her business are the new rules surrounding food vendors who sell food onsite at bars that were once private clubs, as they often do at Hattie’s.
Queen City Nerve reached out to county staff for verification on the process for food vendors and other culinary pop-ups at bars. A spokesperson with the county told us that a mobile food unit that is already permitted can show up to sell food, as is the case with Thomas Neelon of The Happy Hound, a hot dog vendor who regularly sets up outside of Hattie’s.
Still, DeLoach was made to send a letter to the county confirming her permission for The Happy Hound to sell food outside, something she will have to do again for all of the other vendors who rotate in and out of her property, selling food either in the parking lot or on the patio.
The county also confirmed that a Temporary Food Event (TFE) permit must be issued for a day-long event that includes catering.
“It’s really a massive bummer that we’re having to go through this and I really feel for all of the food vendors that have been doing pop-ups in Charlotte for more than 10 years,” DeLoach said.
She added that she sees the new law as part of a larger pattern that she’s experienced in the nearly 10 years since opening Hattie’s: “It just seems like the state does everything they possibly can to always put bars specifically in a corner.”
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