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Central Texas bars seek long-term reopening solution through reclassification

Posted at 10:03 PM, Aug 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-17 23:20:18-04

WACO, Texas — Several Waco-area bars are opening their doors to customers for the first time in months after applying for food and beverage licenses and being reclassified as restaurants. They hope the change will serve as a long-term solution reopening solution.

Under Governor Abbott's executive order, bars with a 51% license are not allowed to open their doors to customers. As a result, several have struggled to stay afloat and keep employees on-staff full-time.

"Every week something's different," James Hayes, general manager of the Salty Dog Sports Bar in Waco said. "We're trying to figure it out and make sure our staff and customers feel safe and are safe, and anything we can do to help out, we're trying to figure out what to do."

Hayes is one of several bar managers who have struggled in recent months to find a consistent reopening solution.

In June, bars were temporarily allowed to reopen as part of the state's move into Phase Three, but after a spike in COVID-19 cases, the state ordered them to close again, leaving several bars with extra, perishable inventory.

"Everything we have to buy adds up if we don't get to use it," Barnett's Public House owner Andrew Steakley said. "We took a big hit the last time when they asked us to close down."

One month later, bars are exploring a new avenue to reopen, rezoning.

At the end of July, Backyard Bar, Stage and Grill led the charge by applying for and receiving a food and beverage certificate. With the certificate, Backyard was re-classified as a restaurant and was able to reopen under the state's current policies.

When Backyard reopened, other bar owners took notice.

"Our owner came to me and he was like, "We gotta fill this paperwork out,"" Hayes said. "So, we filled it out and moved on from there. We saw other people getting passed by in the city and saw it was a good opportunity for us to do it as well."

In order to qualify for a food and beverage certificate, bars must provide financial numbers which show less than 51% of projected revenue will come from alcohol sales.

To meet that benchmark, bars like Crickets are expanding the role of their kitchen.

Restaurants with a food and beverage certificate are required to keep their kitchens open during all business hours. As a result Crickets is now keeping its kitchen open until midnight, when it plans to shut its doors. Typically, the bar closes at 2 a.m., but owners say they believe closing early will also help limit the proportion of revenue made through alcohol sales.

Other restaurants are implementing new policies to increase their revenue from food sales.

Since getting their certificate two weeks ago, The Salty Dog has required customers to purchase food before consuming alcohol.

"We've been here for 10 years, and I think people just want us to be open, so they'll do whatever we ask them to," Hayes said. "We have a lot of good, regular clientele, so they're doing whatever to keep us open."

The Waco Ale Company plans to open its kitchen for the first time when they reopen this weekend. Owner Brett Stewart says opening the kitchen was always a part of the business plan, but the pandemic gave him the "kick in the butt" he needed to finally take the steps to open it.

"We're ready to go," he said. "I've been looking forward to opening this kitchen since this place opened over a year ago, so we're really excited."

However, after being forced to shut down at the end of June, some owners say their excitement is paired with some trepidation.

"It's gonna be a long road ahead. All of us, the breweries and bars that are in this boat, we just don't really know how long this is gonna last," Steakley said.

Barnett's and Waco Ale Company are scheduled to reopen to the public Friday, hopeful that rezoning can provide a long-term reopening solution.