More than a dozen bars in Beaufort County could be shut down if South Carolina courts uphold an April ruling by an administrative judge that denied a liquor license to a Columbia bar on the grounds that it does not sell enough food, according to an analysis by a University of South Carolina professor.
And that estimate could be a low one.
Robin DiPietro, director of the university's International Institute for Foodservice Research and Education, looked at the potential effects of Judge Deborah Durden's ruling, in which she said 5 percent to 10 percent of food sales is not enough for a bar to maintain a liquor license.
Twelve bars in Beaufort County claim to be "drinking places," according to a 2012 census report. The loss of those businesses could mean a loss of $4.7 million in sales and $236,800 in taxes for the state, DiPietro said.
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Tom Reilley, owner of the Coastal Restaurants and Bars group on Hilton Head Island, said he doesn't have any businesses that would be affected by the ruling, but it wouldn't be a good thing for the island if it's upheld.
"This is a society of entrepreneurs," he said. "I would hate to take that entrepreneurial option away from some people that employ a lot of people who pay a lot of taxes."
In the ruling, Durden also questioned whether a microwave qualifies as an oven, something state law requires for establishments to sell liquor. The S.C. Department of Revenue has said microwaves meet that requirement.
"For the state to require a tiny mom and pop bar to have a full kitchen and sell a high percentage of food vs. beer, wine and alcohol just doesn't make sense," Matt Hudson, manager of Cool Cat's Lounge on Hilton Head Island, said. "I think the premise of a decision like this is based on feelings of South Carolinians 50 years ago."
Hudson said Cool Cat's has more than just a microwave to cook food and can serve up to 40 people. His concern is that the court will decide food sales must be 50 percent or more of income for a business.
"This simply doesn't make sense," he said.
Many of these issues aren't new ones as the state's liquor law has long been seen as ambiguous.
The law technically doesn't allow bars of any sort in the state. Businesses must be a "bona fide" restaurant "engaged primarily and substantially in the preparation and serving of meals," the law states.
Overall, at least 1,000 bars across the state could be closed if Durden's ruling is upheld. This would cause a loss of $10 million in tax revenue, the USC study shows.
It is possible the state law is already affecting tax dollars in Beaufort County.
Burt Sky, owner of Peaceful Henry's in Bluffton, said he would like to sell liquor at his tobacco shop.
"From a business standpoint it would be a significant revenue builder," he said. "I would be foolish to say it wouldn't."
Sky currently sells beer and wine only because a beer and wine license doesn't require a kitchen.
"I would like to see the laws relaxed a little bit," Sky said. "They should allow localities to determine what is right for their communities and allow their towns to help control and manage their own growth."