Many restaurant owners say county allowing alcohol sales after 10 p.m. is a boost

Many restaurant owners say county allowing alcohol sales after 10 p.m. is a boost

Businesses that violated health and safety requirements not eligible

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Tommy Joe's in Bethesda is one of more than 150 Montgomery County businesses that have applied for a permit to serve alcohol after 10 p.m.

Photo by Andrew Metcalf

A number of restaurant owners in Montgomery County say the newly approved change allowing alcohol sales until midnight can only help. But some disagree.

The County Council approved the expanded alcohol service in two 8-1 votes on Thursday afternoon, adding two hours to the last call deadline of 10 p.m. The votes were to amend the county’s executive order on pandemic restrictions and adopt it as a Board of Health regulation.

More than 150 businesses in the county had applied for the permit for extra hours for alcohol service as of Monday afternoon, according to a list from the health department. Many of the businesses were in Bethesda, Rockville, Silver Spring and Gaithersburg.

Alan Pohoryles, who owns the bar Tommy Joe’s in Bethesda and applied for the permit, said said in an interview on Tuesday that a good amount of his business occurs between 10 p.m. and midnight.

“We get a lot of the late crowd. People have food and a couple beverages, and at 10, people stop serving alcohol. It’s rough,” he said of the previous 10 p.m. cutoff.

Pohoryles said sales were down 65% at Tommy Joe’s a month ago from pre-pandemic levels, but now sales are only down about 40%. He attributes the rebound in business to the fact that more people want to sit outside on the rooftop patio, as opposed to the oppressive 90-degree temperatures during summer months.

“Anything that can be done to help us, like extending the hours, is welcome,” he said.

Pohoryles said that if people socialize and drink past 10 p.m., it will help business.

“Not just for us, but for everyone in this industry. [The pandemic] has been brutal,” he said.

Jeff Owens, the chief financial officer at Clyde’s Restaurant Group, said Clyde’s applied for licenses at its Rockville and Chevy Chase locations.

“Our plan right now is to just stay open after 10 on Friday and Saturday nights. I don’t think it’s going to be some big windfall, but every little bit helps,” he said.

Chris Fargiano, the general manager at Gregorio’s Trattoria in Potomac, said on Tuesday that he thinks the alcohol permit will help increase late night business, but he did know how much.

“This has been such an unpredictable business climate. It doesn’t hurt, but in terms of business that we’re gonna get back, I think the more that people learn about our permit, the more they’ll be willing to come out and dine with us at 9:30 or 10 o’clock,” he said.

Businesses that previously violated the county’s health order won’t be allowed to get a permit, if the violations were for a lack of mask wearing, lack of social distancing or other safety standards.

The restriction does not apply, though, for businesses cited for having live music. They still may get a permit for the extended hours of service.

Seventeen bars and restaurants are on a county list of businesses cited for violating the county’s order, including some with multiple violations.

Palisades Lounge in Silver Spring was cited on July 2 for violating the face coverings order and for allowing customers to smoke hookah, according to the log. The restaurant was also cited on July 3 for not maintaining social distancing.

Palisades owner Abi Ayele wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Friday that the restaurant doesn’t plan to apply for a permit to serve alcohol after 10 p.m.

“We have a second location without any prior citation which can be allowed to serve alcohol after 10 p.m. but we will pass,” he wrote.

One county restaurant owner objects to the alcohol permits for a different reason.

Mark Bucher, who owns Medium Rare in Bethesda along with its other locations in Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Va., told Bethesda Beat that the measure is “misguided.” He said the pandemic has decreased demand for late-night alcohol purchases.

“In a COVID world, people are eating earlier,” he said. “Families are dining together and they’re eating dinner between 5 and 7 o’clock at night. By 8:30 p.m., downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring are empty. There’s very few people heading into restaurants.”

Bucher said the benefits of alcohol sales after 10 p.m. don’t outweigh the costs. Ten to 15 people out of 50 who show up for nighttime meal service, he said, might order a drink.

“Fifteen people coming in and getting two drinks apiece is $300 in revenue. Just $300 in total revenue for four hours. Your servers are gonna make 30 bucks maybe? You’ve got to pay your staff. You’ve got to do all the stuff with running a business. So by extending the hours on alcohol sales, it actually hurts the financial model of restaurants,” he said.

Bucher added that in normal times, people would watch sports in bars and there would be corporate holiday parties during the Christmas season. Without those events this year, there needs to be another way to help struggling restaurants try to make ends meet. Extending the hours of alcohol sales won’t help, he said.

“A lot of bars and restaurants like [the now closed] Harp & Fiddle in Bethesda had no outside seating. So they were dead,” Bucher said, referring to extra seating to help businesses that are still limited in their indoor seating. “Extending these hours would not have helped them one iota. Most bars don’t have outside seating. So by extending the hours, you’re not helping bars.”

Bucher said a better solution would be for the county to allow more outside seating on the sidewalk by possibly letting restaurants barricade parking meters on Friday and Saturday nights.

“We need the government help to loosen up rules and regulations to allow us to increase and heat outside seating,” he said, “and give us added capacity to make up for the massive amount of lost revenue that’s coming our way this winter.”

Pohoryles said he understands that some restaurants might not find the county’s new rule beneficial. At Tommy Joe’s, customers often come late at night to drink, socialize and watch sports, rather than to dine.

“It’s different for anybody depending on the establishment. But I don’t think anybody would complain about being able to [serve drinks] for two more hours,” he said.

County Council member Tom Hucker, one of the eight who voted for the allowance of alcohol to be served after 10 p.m., told Bethesda Beat Tuesday evening that he thinks it will help businesses that want the permit.

“Many of them are competing with restaurants in D.C. that are serving alcohol until 12, and from a public health perspective, it doesn’t really matter if someone’s dining south of here in D.C. or in Silver Spring. So I’d rather have them dining in Silver Spring, under the same guidance. Or in Bethesda,” he said.

“Public health comes first, but we’re trying to protect public health while doing what we can to mitigate the impact on the economy.”

Council Member Hans Riemer voted against the new program because he was concerned it would lead to more COVID-19 cases in the county.

“I know that restaurants are struggling. I know that this is a really tough time for the entire hospitality sector,” he said. “But I’m just concerned that by taking this step, we’re accelerating down the path of reopening for certain services that may not really be our highest priority.”

Riemer said having last call for alcohol at 10 p.m. probably covers the need for most restaurants.

“I think what we’re really talking about here is indoor-bar type service and I really just don’t think that’s an opening we should actually undertake at this time,” he said.

The county could be sending a message that it’s moving toward reopening more quickly, but without a plan to hold the virus down to a level that’s needed to reopen schools, Riemer said.

“If we’re going to take some risks with targeted openings, I think it ought to be the services that we feel are the most critically important,” he said. “Right now, for me, that would be small groups of MCPS students. Maybe students with more needs, students with challenges getting the resources at home that they need to thrive in this difficult environment.”

Bethesda Beat staff writer Briana Adhikusuma contributed to this story

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdsamagazine.com

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