Alisha Miller took a paved parking lot and put up a paradise.
Without her palm-tree studded parking lot patio and the newfound ability to serve drinks outside at Racks Pub & Grill in Atco, her business would’ve been a goner this year, along with countless others that benefited from expansion of premise permits created by Alcoholic Beverage Control due to COVID-19.
The offering coincided with the executive order that gave the go-ahead to outdoor dining in June; and over the next few weeks, sidewalks, parking lots, and empty outdoor spaces provided opportunities for New Jerseyans thirsty for social interaction and a semblance of normalcy.
“When it came about and we could open for outdoor dining, we spent money to make sure we could have an outdoor area that was enticing for people to come out. I mean, you’re in a parking lot,” Miller laughed. “We did the best we could by making it as enticing as possible. We got palm trees, we got plants and stuff to make it look a little less … parking lot. But you do what you gotta do.”
Bar owners like Miller are rooting for Senate Bill 2980, which already passed in the Assembly, to extend their expansion permits past their expiration date on Nov. 30 until the indoor dining limitations are lifted.
Without it, they’ll be forced to limit their guests to whatever the indoor dining capacity limits are at the time. Even with a potential increase in capacity from the current 25% to 50%, career bar owner Jim Fillet says it won’t make a difference to many small to medium sized bars like Dadz, in Lumberton, which he’s owned for 33 years.
“We’re allowed to have 200 people inside normally, and with social distancing we can only have 50. But I went around the room to figure out where I could place more seats with social distancing and I might be able to get two tables more at 50% than 25%,” Fillet said. “A friend of mine has only 20 seats and 12 bar stools, but outside he has 70 seats. He didn’t even open up the inside. It’s a formula game after a while, like any board game. How do you lower your expenses and maximize your profits?”
Fillet, who is president of the New Jersey Licensed Beverage Association, said that New Jersey should open up indoor capacity limits to 50% anyway, for those that would benefit.
Miller said people are “not running indoors,” meaning keeping outdoor spaces available and open for use remains important for the continuation of business in the state. And with colder weather on the horizon, they’ll need to figure out acceptable ways to do that.
“My members have been looking at ways to keep those spaces warmer between using tents and having heating elements, and Jersey has had some mild winters lately. The hope is that if you build it, they will come. The customers who are willing to brave the cold for some really cold beers will utilize the spaces,” sad New Jersey Brewers Association Executive Director Alexis Degan. “Just the other day I was at a winery, and it was a chilly day, so I wore a sweater, wore a sweatshirt over the sweater, and brought some blankets – I’m a cold weather wimp, but [the prospect of a drink outdoors] overcame that.”
It’s a formula game after a while, like any board game. How do you lower your expenses and
maximize your profits?
— Jim Fillet, career bar owner
Fillet and Miller each note that even with the extension of the premise expansion, some bars run into operating challenges solely due to where they’re based. “It’s home rule. I know people that got the [extension of premise] permits but weren’t able to utilize it properly because their municipality wasn’t really going with it,” Fillet said. “Each municipality has their own checkpoints you have to get through to get the approval for the permit, which really makes it interesting. It’s like getting your license renewed again.”
Miller experienced the dynamic firsthand. Something that’s allowed at Racks in Atco may not be allowed in Williamstown, where she has a second location.
“I could have one township say you can have a tent but no, you can’t have sides on the tent. So now if I have heaters, that’ll do nothing for me. That’s the thing that really stinks,” Miller said. “Some towns, they might allow [enclosed tents and heaters as outdoor seating], so they’re at more of a privilege to get customers. If I can’t do that, what is going to be enticing to my customer?”
In North Cape May, Zachary Pashley of Gusto Brewing used the expansion of premise permit to his advantage in a different way: Outdoor seating was always the plan at New Jersey’s southernmost brewery, but a misunderstanding at the county level prohibited Gusto from moving forward with outfitting the space for people to drink there. With the expansion of premise permit, he was able to build out his patio and reapply with the town and ABC to get the outdoor seating he had been vying for since opening in December 2018.
“Selfishly, we look at it as for some reason if the ABC doesn’t do what they’re expected to do with our application, we have this beautiful thing that we can’t use. How quickly they process that gauges my concern over [Senate Bill 2980]. We find ourselves in a good position considering the circumstances; so really, I look at my colleagues and the other breweries in Cape May County and [the loss of outdoor drinking] would be catastrophic for them. Part of the reason we love operating a brewery here is the camaraderie, the friendly competition – the more good beer, the more it extends our season past the traditional months of May to September.”