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Bar memberships no longer required under new state law, will benefit local businesses

Orange County Social Club
Orange County Social Club bartender Laura King serves drinks on July 25, 2022.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro bars including Orange County Social Club, Atlas, Local 506 and The Crunkleton will no longer be required by state law to treat customers as "members" who must pay a fee.

House Bill 768, removed this membership requirement for bars earlier this month. Gov. Roy Coopers signed the bill into law on July 7. 

Previous law required establishments that made less than 30 percent of their revenue from food and nonalcoholic beverages to charge membership fees and were considered "private bars." 

HB768 replaces the term "private bars" with "bars," eliminating the membership requirement. 

Orange County Social Club has charged a membership fee since it opened 21 years ago. Members were recorded in a large book and given cards made by owner Tricia Mesigian. She said the membership requirement became ingrained in the culture at OCSC and was a part of the bar’s identity.

This September marks OCSC’s 21st anniversary. When they first opened, they charged $10 for a membership, and the law required a three-day waiting period after memberships were purchased. When the waiting period was removed, the cost of membership went down to five dollars. Now because of the new bill, OCSC has no membership fees.

Mesigian said that since OCSC currently only has seven people on staff, the change will greatly reduce their workload.

“The way that OCSC works is that most times in the week, it’s just one person working,” she said. “So the person who is asking about memberships is the person that's getting your drink and ringing you up or starting your tab or cleaning your table or bussing your dishes.”

Local 506 and The Crunkleton did not respond to requests for comment.

Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery owner and North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association Board Member Scott Maitland said that the law dates back to prohibition in North Carolina. 

“The irony to me is you'd have these people that, by definition, hate alcohol, don't want anything to do with it — total teetotallers — but they are coming up with these ideas surrounding how alcohol should be served,” he said.

Maitland has spent the last decade working to change laws about distilleries and breweries and helping the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association develop policies surrounding alcohol.

Maitland said the change will likely be “inconsequential” when it comes to bar revenue but will make things easier for owners and bartenders, simplifying operations for bars across the state.

“It can make things easier when there's lovely people walking in, and you can just say, 'What can I get you?' instead of, 'Are you a member?'" Mesigian said.

Atlas bar manager Brian Toomey said the change will make his job easier. Toomey has been the manager at Atlas since it opened earlier this year as well as a bartender at ACME Food & Beverage Company for 20 years.

“We're happy about it, it's just been a law that really has made no sense for all of my working career and it really just makes it so much easier,” he said. “We don’t have that hassle all the time, when we’re busy, to sign people up.”

In the same week, additional changes were made to bar and liquor laws in North Carolina.

Senate Bill 470 states that bar areas are no longer subject to health inspection except for the preparation of garnishes for alcoholic beverages, and it is no longer necessary for establishments to maintain kitchen operations while it is open to the public. 

Under previous law, if the kitchen were to close in an establishment at any time, it would legally be defined as a private bar instead of a restaurant.

That last change is the one Maitland is most excited about, as it will have the greatest effect on TOPO. 

“Keeping the kitchen open made sense politically, but man, it was a disaster from an operations perspective,” he said.

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Maitland can now keep his kitchen open only as long as people are ordering food and close it later in the night, which he said will save him money. 

Mesigian said that while the change will simplify operations, she and her staff enjoyed the “accountability” that came with memberships because people had to pay a small fee to join the OCSC community. She said she and her staff briefly discussed continuing memberships but ultimately decided not to.

“We just need to adapt and move on and just stay true to ourselves in that we like to keep Orange County Social Club a place that people feel good in and as comfortable as possible,” she said.


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