By Dawn Nolan
If members of the hospitality and tourism industry have their say, brunch in West Virginia is about to change.
Right now, plenty of local restaurants offer a weekend menu that combines breakfast and lunch. But before 1 p.m. on Sundays, none of them can be served with traditional brunch beverages like bloody marys or mimosas.
Current law states that restaurants, private clubs, distilleries and wineries cannot serve or sell alcohol to customers until then.
This week, efforts to change that law heat up.
“We have local, statewide and national support on this,” said Carol Fulks, executive director of the West Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association. “It’s our number one priority this year.”
The bills — SB 21, SB 298 and SB 307, known more commonly as the “brunch bills” — are pending in the Senate Economic Development Committee. Two similar bills, HB 2803 and HB 2804, pending in the House Judiciary Committee, call for a serving and sale time of 10:30 a.m. for private clubs, wineries, farm wineries, distilleries and mini-distilleries.
“A number of restaurants, resorts and hotels around the state offer a Sunday brunch,” said Sen. Bob Williams, D-Taylor, a sponsor of SB 21. “This would simply allow folks to have a cocktail before 1 p.m. if they choose. It will also allow farm wineries and distilleries, which I think of more like tourist facilities, to sell at that time. It’s a tourism bill.”
“We want to let businesses throughout West Virginia to be able to make decisions for themselves and run their businesses the way that they’d like,” said Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam, lead sponsor of SB 298.
Alisa Bailey, president and CEO of the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau, called the bills “business friendly” and said the current law’s restrictive nature is affecting the state’s economy.
“We’re leaving money on the table,” she said. “It’s free enterprise, something that should be very easy to understand.”
Many brunch bill supporters look to neighboring states as an example. Ohio, Pennsylvania, cities in Kentucky and Virginia, and counties in Maryland have passed laws to allow early sales on Sundays. Georgia has a similar bill pending before its legislative body.
For years, “blue laws” prohibited the sale of wine or liquor on Sundays. In West Virginia, “off-premise” liquor sales are still prohibited on Sunday. Grocery and convenience stores can sell wine and beer, but not until 1 p.m.
“Let’s bring things into our city that others around us already do and stay current with the times,” said Deno Stanley, owner of Adelphia Sports Bar & Grille. “As restaurateurs, we put a whole lot of work into this stuff. I don’t understand why they want to constrict what we’re doing business-wise. We could have went anywhere to open businesses.”
Stanley, Bailey and others believe that the current law is negatively affecting West Virginia tourism.
“Our tourists expect it [being able to have a drink],” Bailey said. “When they can’t, they’re disappointed, and that makes it harder to attract them back to Charleston.”
Fulks and Walters said that places such as Snowshoe Resort, which conducted an economic impact study on the subject, reported that they’d see hundreds of thousands of dollars of extra revenue from the proposed change in serving time each year.
Fulks added that other tourist destinations, like the Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown, The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs and bed-and-breakfasts could also benefit immensely.
Charleston restaurateur Keeley Steele witnesses on a weekly basis how much revenue she loses by serving alcohol later on Sundays. Her East End restaurant, Bluegrass Kitchen, serves brunch on both days of the weekend.
“I have sort of a unique position on knowing what revenue I’m losing on Sunday because we have Saturday brunch, too,” she said. “I’d have to look at the exact numbers, but over the course of a month, it’s more than several hundred dollars worth. It’s between $700 and $1,200 weekly.”
Angela Smith, general manager of Black Sheep Burritos and Brews, is also aware of the difference in business between Saturdays and Sundays.
“We miss out on $1,500 to $2,000 in sales every single Sunday, in those two hours, from 11 [a.m.] to 1 [p.m.], because people can’t get drinks with their brunch, and they don’t come in to eat if they can’t drink. Bloody marys and mimosas are just part of the brunch experience for most people,” Smith said. “Think of all the people coming in from out of town who go for a Sunday brunch, and they can’t have a mimosa or a bloody mary with their Sunday brunch because they’re in West Virginia? That’s sad.”
Sometimes customers will even leave the restaurant because they can’t be served alcohol.
“We get a lot of out-of-towners coming in, you know, on a Sunday morning, they want to sit out on the patio with their mimosa, and we’re like, ‘sorry.’ And we’ve had people leave because they can’t, and we’re like, ‘You can’t go anywhere else either!’”
Black Sheep Burritos’ original location in Huntington across from the Marshall University campus has a booming brunch business.
“In Huntington, our Sunday brunch is just a madhouse, and like at 12:30 p.m., the place just fills up with all the people waiting to be able to order their drinks at 1 o’clock.”
The earlier Sunday serving time is not a new idea.
“It should have passed a long time ago,” Steele said. “It’s a very viable way to increase revenue for independent restaurants. It directly impacts the economy of West Virginia.”
Previous versions have been introduced in the Legislature over the last few years, but ultimately none of them have been successful.
“As in the past, I am optimistic at least one of these bills will pass this year,” said Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, lead sponsor of SB 21. “It’s not unusual for legislation to take more than one year to see adoption by the legislature. Issues often require a period of education and growing support outside the Capitol for it to have any success. Both bills are a grass roots push by small businesses across the state that have a desire to improve their business and more importantly be competitive with other states that allow similar brunch legislation. If only by a small amount, it ultimately will stimulate economic development in our resort areas and communities.”
“Any time you talk about the expansion of alcohol sales, there’s going to be opposition,” Walters said.
The local restaurant owners agreed.
“When it gets to the House, it seems to stall,” Stanley said.
“It is my understanding that the Speaker won’t even allow it on the floor,” Steele said.
Some industry insiders believe the opposition is based on moral or religious grounds, and they say the cluster of brunch bills are loosely referred to by opponents as the “get drunk and go to church” bills.
“We’ve heard some legislators have made the comment that, you know, what kind of tourists are we attracting that want to get drunk before 1 o’clock on a Sunday? My retort to that being that I literally had a Catholic priest walk in and order a beer at 12:30 on a Sunday,” said Black Sheep bartender Steven Deakins.
“What it goes back to is the law is based on religion. We were told that … it’s all based on the belief that if people can’t drink until 1 o’clock on Sunday, they’re going to come to church,” Smith said.
“It feels like there is a religious context behind not allowing it, which feels patently wrong to me,” Steele said. “They need to get their church out of my Sunday morning mimosa.”
A spokesman for the West Virginia House of Delegates declined to comment on the bills this week.
Industry leaders will meet with lawmakers on Monday to share their views and network. Later this week, the brunch bills will be analyzed by Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, chairman of the Economic Development Committee, and combined into one.
An attempt to reach Takubo earlier this week was unsuccessful.
“I’m hopeful,” Williams said. “But I learned a long time ago not to predict.”
The legislative session will adjourn on March 12.
Reach Dawn Nolan at [email protected], 304-348-1230 or follow @DawnNolanWV on Twitter.