Bar None vs. Prohibition
It is creeping past 2 am on a Monday night at Bar None.
I have walked into the bar with a singular purpose in mind - to eat.
Not only one of the very few places in the vicinity of Five Points that serves food past midnight, Bar None has become a local legend. For over 24 years, it has been a destination for local residents and those coming back to visit Columbia - a place where they once lived.
During the last meeting on the subject of the 21st Century Prohibition, or the proposed “curfew” for the local Columbia, SC bars, enforcing a mandatory closing at 2 am was discussed, as opposed to currently operating late night license, allowing places like Bar None to stay open and serve alcohol (and, most importantly, food - and, no less importantly, allowing no liquor or shots whatsoever, already) past 2 am.
There was a lot of frustration expressed, people not feeling safe about living in neighborhoods close to the currently operating late night bars. Many have expressed fear and anxiety, complaining that they have witnessed intoxicated young adults staggering, aimless, confused, and sometimes aggressive, through residential neighborhoods. Some have brought damaged property as evidence, some have said that it was different before, years ago, when nothing of the sort has ever happened anywhere near their houses. The University of South Carolina representative was prepared to present compelling numbers - a significant amount of alcohol abuse by underage minors, apparently, took place at the local late night bars; however, the said representative did not provide any comparative statistics, such as the abuse of alcohol by minors in on and off-campus student housing facilities.
When Amy Beth Franks, the President of the Five Points Association, asked all present general public members of the audience to identify themselves by raising a hand, if they stand in support of the continuation of the late night license for local businesses and associated public freedoms, more than half the present audience raised their hands. Many bar owner spoke out. Many service industry professionals showed up and expressed their opinion. Many general opinions in support of freedom were stated.
Yet, one general theme seemed to stand out most significantly. Many speakers infallibly referred to Bar None, the destination of comfort, security, consistence, great customer service, and even inspiration. Some have remembered the experience from their college years that hasn’t changed to this day; some have confessed to taking out their now elderly parents for Smoked Wings there past 2 am; some have argued that the diligence and keenness of the doormen of the establishment is comparable only to those serving in the Law Enforcement field. Most have consented in regard to Bar None being exemplary and being proof, in fact, that late night license, when used appropriately, result in a positive, safe environment for its adults-only patrons. A business owner of a Devine street boutique confessed, very personally, to being rescued by a neighboring late night bar, Nightcaps, when woken up by a security alarm call telling her to proceed with caution when entering her own store; when she arrived at the location, all alone, she said, almost tearing up, the bar staff was already at the door of her business, ready to offer their help and support to her and ready to step in and protect her in the midst of this late night incident.
I have known Marty, the owner of Bar None, for several years now. I have come to remember his personal Bar None hours - Tuesday and Thursday, 2-4 pm approximately. So last Thursday, I went to Bar None at a very unusual for me (a confirmed night owl), time - 3:30 pm. The street was filled with the warm rays of sunshine, and the inside of the bar was unusually light too.
Welcome, - said Marty, - long time, no see!
Little did he know, I was at his bar just the night before - and stayed at least until 3:30… am. Working, as I often do at Bar None.
I jumped right into it. I said to him: Marty, your bar is not just a late night bar, it is a Destination. It is an inseparable part of the local culture, it has influenced generations of local residents, it is a must-see for anyone that ever comes back to visit Columbia. People agree that you follow the currently existing rules, people recognize your business as a sort of an exemplary late night bar; a bar that manages to follow the rules and help take care of people. So why don’t we go over what makes you successful at… Well, succeeding? What does it take to run a successful late-night bar in Columbia, South Carolina? And what are some things that can be used as a merit to measure the aptitude of the other late-night alcohol license business owners?
In response, Marty graciously shared with me some of the Golden Standards he has adopted in his business strategy - though also wisely warned me, “do not tell other business owners how to run their business, that never turns out well”.
1. Late Night Insurance
At the last meeting, which I personally attended, Marty spoke out. It was said that purchasing the late night license is cheap - Marty opposed, saying that while the license is cheap, the late night insurance is extremely expensive. Though often not checked rigorously enough, it is absolutely necessary for the safe and legal operation of the late night alcohol sales. I asked Marty to tell me more specifically what a ticket price on that kind of thing might be… He said it is somewhere between for $24k-$25k this year, and used to be around $38k just a few years ago. When I asked him how can some businesses possibly get away without having the insurance, Marty suggested that the priority is always on the license, and that the insurance may sometimes be overlooked.
2. No Cheap Beers
As a regular at Bar None, I know my choices, shall I want a cheap beer, are pretty narrow. Personally, when that is the case, I settle on Miller High Life. Marty told me that he keeps the cheap beer selection extremely limited on purpose, thus deterring potential law violators and patrons with limited funds. It is exclusive, but it works. Bar None is known as a place where adults can get a drink late at night, and there is a wide selection of beers that adult customers with disposable income can choose from.
3. No Liquor After 2am
Though it is law, Marty proudly states (and I can personally confirm, by means of repetitive observation) that his staff at Bar None never serves liquor past 2 am. There are no exceptions, and the staff is constantly monitored to uphold the standard on this issue and make no exceptions - not for friends, not for anyone.
4. No College Kids with Fake IDs
Bar None staff is known to be strict on IDs. Underage students walk around Five Points at night, and if you find yourself there, at the wee small hours of the morning, just listen - you will hear them discussing how Bar None “is not gonna fly” because no one will take their fakes there, no matter how hard they pout. Perhaps, the ID check should be regulated, and a mutual technique adopted across all of the late night license holders.
5. Keeping Great, Reliable Staff
I asked Marty to tell me his secret - I look at the staff of Bar None, that hasn’t changed in almost four years that I’ve lived in Columbia, in awe and fascination… Loyal, dedicated, reliable, they seem to be the Knights of the Round Table of the Arthurian legends rather than the bar staff you’d associate, stereotypically, with a late night bar. Meanwhile, a lot of food and beverage business owners in Columbia struggle with finding trustworthy personnel. Marty confessed - it is about the tips. The Bar None clientele tends to be older, and the tips are better. He said that most of his guys work 30 hours a week and make a solid living, which is why they do not quit.
6. Strictly Minding Capacity
Another thing that can cause problems for bars operating late at night is having too many people inside. Marty told me that his staff is instructed to keep a close watch at the number of people present at the bar, and to stop letting guests in right as the bar reaches capacity. Overcrowding creates situations that are hard to isolate and harder yet to contain, once initiated.
7. No Drunk Folk
Obviously, letting already dangerously intoxicated individuals into the bar warrants over-serving. Marty believes that a lot of trouble associated with the late night bar begins before people actually enter the said bar, as they may already be highly intoxicated. In fact, many college students practice a tradition that originates from, but is not limited to, the football game culture, and is called “pre-gaming”. What that means is that they ingest significant amounts of alcohol at their housing facilities, or even dorms, to spend less money when going out, and to get drunk before they even start drinking in public. The staff at Bar None is trained to discern intoxicated behavior, and they relentlessly refuse entry to individuals that have evidently abused alcohol.
8. Cooked Food
Although currently already an enforced requirement, the issue of food is quite significant. Bar None is known for delicious food, and everyone has a favorite. Some love wings, some rave about the barbecue sandwich, some obsess over the Five Points Special… Everyone loves the cheese fries, some favor the breaded mushrooms. I asked Marty how a business could possibly get away with anything less than a full bar menu. He admitted that it is possible, sometimes, to pass frozen food that is simply re-heated as a menu item, and agreed that there should perhaps be a legal requirement to have a certain set amount of cooked items that a bar must offer to hold the late night license.
I asked Marty about the impact of Bar None on the community of Columbia, South Carolina. He said that his business brought in over $1 million in taxes over the past 3 years. Bar None provides jobs for the local residents that remain loyally, consistently employed. It is a late night bar and restaurant, serving adults, with highly trained, professional staff. It is a local attraction, a place that draws visitors and has been part of the Columbia’s very own character for a quarter of a century. Most agree that Bar None is doing a great job.
So why not learn from them? Why not implement their success points and correct what needs to be corrected instead of eliminating the personal and commercial freedoms of the residents of the Columbia community?