MATTHEWS – Stumptown Station has been waiting for the OK to reopen ever since closing its doors more than five months ago per Gov. Roy Cooper’s orders due to COVID-19.
During that time, the members-only bar in downtown Matthews established new cleaning procedures, cut the number of tables and bar stools in half, sectioned off seating areas and rearranged the bar for better flow and social distancing. Still, it remains closed.
“We really did a lot to accommodate this, but we didn’t even get the chance and nobody even asked,” said owner Bob Klein.
Stumptown Station is a two-story, 1,500-square-foot private bar that serves beer, wine and liquor and charges a yearly membership fee. Five dollars gets you access to the bar for one year, while $30 gets you VIP access with a personalized glass and other perks. There’s no kitchen, which is why it’s been closed since March 17, along with roughly a thousand other bars across the state that hold similar licenses.
So why doesn’t Stumptown just start serving food?
“It’s not that simple,” Klein said. “It’s not like I can just throw a toaster behind the bar and start serving up grilled cheese and I can open back up.”
In North Carolina, a public establishment, such as a restaurant, can serve liquor if food sales exceed 30% of total receipts. If food sales do not exceed 30% or the venue does not serve food at all, then the business is a private bar or club and is required to have membership cards and dues.
Only restaurants and bars that serve at least 30% food are allowed open under Phase 2 of Cooper’s reopening plan. Breweries are allowed to open because they can have tasting rooms without serving food under the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission’s On-Premise Malt Beverage Permit.
Klein doesn’t think it’s fair and feels Cooper is discriminating against a certain sector of business based on a stigma that bars are “rowdy and lawless.” He said that may be the case for some, but not at Stumptown Station.
“Our bartenders are chefs,” Klein said. “We’re really high-end and we’re really clean.”
If allowed open, Klein said everyone would be spaced out and required to wear masks. Employees would also wear gloves and frequently disinfect hightouch surfaces. He even said he’d be willing to go the extra mile if necessary, whatever that may mean.
“If they say, ‘We’re going to let you open up but we’re going to hold you to a higher standard,’ that’s fine,” Klein said. “We just want the opportunity.”
Mark Dalrymple, owner of Small Bar in Stallings, said he feels for Klein and the staff at Stumptown Station. He said it hasn’t been a level playing field and for the bars that are closed, it feels like a personal attack.
“The fact that breweries are open is ridiculous. Their main point is to sell alcohol,” Dalrymple said. “There’s no difference between a brewery and a private bar and I’ve been doing this for 30 years.”
Although Small Bar holds a private bar license, it’s been open in Phase 2 because its food sales exceed 30%. Dalrymple said he’s also been cleared by the ABC and ALE, the lead enforcement agency for the state’s alcoholic beverage control, lottery and tobacco laws.
He said Stumptown Station is fully capable of being open, too.
“It’s not like a college bar or a club,” Dalrymple said. “His place is more of a meeting ground for people of Matthews to get together for a drink or two, so I don’t know how they’re grouped into that category.”
Cooper hasn’t been able to answer that question either, Klein said.
Over the past few weeks, several private bar owners have unsuccessfully tried pleading their case to his office. Klein said they want Cooper to provide scientific data that shows establishments with private bar licenses can’t abide by the same safety requirements that other bars and restaurants can.
Klein said he planned to ask Matthews commissioners for their support with relations with the governor’s office. He also wanted to share his story and ask for help negotiating with the ABC, ALE and local police to find some common ground to work with.
“I think if we can bring more awareness to the discrimination we are facing, we might be able to get somewhere with our governor and get us back open before it’s too late,” Klein said.
The bills haven’t stopped coming since Stumptown closed in March and Klein said the revenue lost so far is “crippling.” Still, he’s hunkered down and looking for a workaround.
“I’m trying to save my business,” Klein said.
But commissioners didn’t have much to say after hearing from Klein during their Aug. 24 meeting.
“I think you bring up some interesting points and certainly a topic of discussion among us and among staff,” said Mayor John Higdon.