You’re on vacation in another state. Let’s call it Dearth Carolina.
On the last day of the trip, you wake up craving something hot and greasy. Bleary-eyed, you type “breakfast near me open now” into Google, landing on a local fried chicken joint with rave reviews. At the restaurant, you’re presented with a buffet of greasy goodness, and you decide you’ll surprise your sleeping partner by bringing back a fried chicken smorgasbord: tenders, biscuits, maybe even a Cobb salad. You’re two to-go boxes deep when an employee comes up and yanks the tongs out of your hands.
“You can look and smell, but you can’t touch,” he says. “Are you from out of town?”
“It’s Sunday,” he says. “We can’t sell fried chicken on Sundays.”
“Then why are you even open?”
He walks into the kitchen and returns with a small paper cup.
“You can have one-quarter of a chicken nugget,” he says. “After you finish it, I can give you another one, but you should take it slow, these nuggets can sneak up on you. Wouldn’t want you falling asleep behind the wheel.”
You didn’t plan to eat here, you tell him; you were hoping to bring a meal back for your wife.
“Sorry,” he says, gesturing vaguely. “It’s the law.”
“OK, so should I just go to Chick-fil-A, or whatever that place is called?”
“Chick-fil-A,” he laughs, wiping his eyes. “That’s a good one.”
If that allegory was too opaque, here’s the SparkNotes: The fried chicken joint is an independent North Carolina distillery. The buffet is bottled liquor. The quarter chicken nugget is a cocktail. Chick-fil-A is an ABC store.
And though I doubt that Olde Raleigh Distillery owner Brandon McCraney would ever laugh in a customer’s face, here, for symbolic purposes, he is the employee—primarily because he, too, is well acquainted with having to tell customers that he can’t sell them his product.
Or he was, until a month ago, when Governor Roy Cooper signed the landmark House Bill 890 into law. HB 890 loosens state liquor restrictions in a number of ways, but for McCraney, whose distillery occupies a 10,000-square-foot building in downtown Zebulon, one key provision stands out: locally owned distilleries can now sell bottled spirits on Sundays.
Three weeks before the bill passed, on a Sunday in September, McCraney manned his distillery’s bar from open to close. During that one day, he had to turn away twelve different customers who came in looking to buy a bottle of bourbon.
“That translates to about $1,100 in sales,” McCraney says. “They left empty-handed and disappointed and there was nothing I could do about it.”
As an alternative, he had offered to sell them cocktails—ever since House Bill 290 passed in 2019, distilleries have been allowed to sell mixed drinks on their premises, which is why many distilleries are open for business on Sundays—but most customers were out-of-towners with long drives ahead.
“They wanted to buy a bottle, get home, and drink responsibly,” McCraney says.
Having entered the distilling business to raise people’s spirits, McCraney says turning away customers has been frustrating.
Representative Tim Moffitt, R-Henderson, the chair of the House Committee on Alcoholic Beverage Control and a sponsor of HB 890, says the bill is part of a state effort to “modernize a very antiquated alcohol control system” that has had a hold on the state since 1908, when North Carolina became the first state to enact statewide Prohibition.
When distilleries began selling spirits on Sunday, October 3, it was the first time in over a century.
The bill’s Sunday sales allowance also comes with a bonus for independent distillers: it doesn’t apply to ABC stores, thus giving local businesses a boost over their state-controlled counterparts. Furthermore, local distillers are now able to sell bottled spirits on five holidays that ABC stores are closed on, including Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.
“How many times have you been stuck in a pickle where you want to go celebrate a holiday but you don’t make it to the store in time, and then you don’t have the spirits to do it?” asks Chris Powers, co-owner of Young Hearts Distilling in downtown Raleigh. “Now you can.”
Before opening Young Hearts, Powers worked primarily in beer—he co-owns Raleigh’s Trophy Brewing Co. and State of Beer—and says the bill gives North Carolina distillers “more parity with breweries and wineries.”
The bill also establishes a Spirituous Liquor Advisory Council, which will function similarly to the Brewers Guild and Wine Council in developing and promoting public awareness of the spirits industry.
And, thanks to another major facet of the bill, council members won’t be the only ones working to increase exposure for local liquor producers. HB 890 has authorized the creation of designated public outdoor areas known as “social districts,” in which people can drink alcoholic beverages sold by surrounding purveyors. According to Moffitt, the concept is flexible and local leaders can determine which structure works best for their communities: districts may be defined by city blocks or barricades, for example, and can be perpetual or event-only.
“[Social districts] will allow some of the most creative people in our communities to work with local leaders and create a vibrant business scene that brings people back downtown, to areas that need t
o recover from the pandemic,” Moffitt says.
The city of Kannapolis has already approved a social district that spans a number of blocks and features three approved vendors. McCraney, meanwhile, is working with Zebulon town leaders to establish a district near his business.
“It will be good not only for distilleries but also [for] ushering in and promoting customers going from business to business,” he says.
Young Hearts is the only distillery in downtown Raleigh, and though the city has not yet established a social district, Powers is thrilled by the potential of being able to hand out cocktails to go.
“It gives us an opportunity to help build a thriving agritourism business,” Powers says. “We can capture tourists as they’re coming through town on a Sunday and get them excited about coming back.”
If you prefer tipsy sports-watching to window-shopping, HB 890 has something for you, too: In an effort to shorten vendor lines, athletic venues can now sell one person two glasses of beer or wine at the same time. Distilleries, wineries, and breweries will also be able to obtain special-events permits to hand out free samples of their product at conventions, farmers markets, and street festivals.
For purveyors hoping to participate in community events, this is a big deal; in May, for example, after Durham Distillery signed up to be featured in a “Main Street Crawl” event intended to help small businesses recover from the pandemic, it was forced to pull out last-minute: even though attendees had paid money for their tickets, the distillery’s planned cocktail samples still fell under the state’s definition of “free” and would have been illegal to serve.
A fable about the difficulties of buying liquor in North Carolina should involve mention of another recent limitation: since this summer, spirits have been low.
Let’s say that Dearth Carolina recently passed a bill enabling local restaurants to start selling fried chicken on Sundays.
It’s huge news for independent purveyors, who now have an edge over corporate brands with Sunday closures that are rooted in religion, and customers are thrilled that chicken biscuits are back on the menu for Sunday brunch. During the rest of the week, though, the majority of Dearth Carolinians will still head to Chick-fil-A for their fried chicken fix; it’s more accessible in terms of price and location, and they’ve yet to find a local spot that sells anything comparable to Chick-n-Minis.
But there’s a problem.
Over the past few months, Chick-fil-A hasn’t had any of its usual products in stock. Some of its less popular menu items are available, but if you’re looking for nuggets or a Spicy Deluxe Sandwich, you’re out of luck. All across Dearth Carolina, Chick-fil-A is out of chicken, and no one seems to know why.
The liquor supply shortage that started in early 2020 has steadily worsened over the course of the pandemic, and according to Moffitt, it’s probably not going away anytime soon.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s getting better,” Moffitt says. “There seem to be a handful of stores that are fully stocked, but in large measure, most stores are not.”
The ABC Commission is pointing its finger at global supply chain issues, while its warehouse operator, LB&B Associates, is blaming complications from a new inventory software that the agency implemented in June. It’s true that technical difficulties, international container shortages, and distribution delays have certainly contributed to the problem.
But given that most other states aren’t facing anywhere near the same liquor deficit as North Carolina it seems likely that the commission’s draconian control over state alcohol consumption is also to blame.
The ABC system was already in disarray years before the pandemic triggered problems with the global supply chain; in 2018, an audit revealed that the ABC had been losing close to $1 million of taxpayer money every year since 2005 due to poorly handled contracts and inadequate management.
In September of this year, ABC Commission chairman A.D. “Zander” Guy resigned from the board. He had been experiencing excess stress from the liquor shortage, he told the Associated Press, which resulted in sleepless nights spent “worrying about things that you can’t control.”
If the chairman of the ABC was experiencing a lack of agency, you can only imagine how helpless folks at the bottom of the chain are feeling. With big-name brands like Tito’s, Jameson, and Crown Royal out of stock at ABC stores for weeks at a time, and nationally operated chain restaurants hoarding the supply as soon as bottles are made available, local bars and restaurants are being forced to take drinks off the menu or find substitute spirits.
And when buyers are notified that their long-delayed orders are finally ready to pick up, the items are often still out of stock, according to several Triangle restaurant workers who wished to remain anonymous for fear of aggravating an already tenuous relationship with the ABC.
The shortage is also leading some local distilleries to refrain from selling their product at ABC stores, for fear of it getting lost in the state’s distribution system.
“One reason we elected to hold on distributing was because of this state distribution issue. As a business owner, at least I know where my inventory is,” McCraney says. “The second it’s set in a state distribution warehouse, I can’t say that.”
Moffitt says the General Assembly is referring the distribution issues to “government ops,” who are now “digging into more detail about why we are here and what’s the problem in getting it resolved.”
Legislators and the ABC are pushing the narrative that there is still a missing element to the shortage that, once unearthed, can resolve the whole issue. It seems more likely, though, that the problem lies in an old-fashioned, mismanaged system that is attempting to function the same way it did when it was established, over 80 years ago.
But until the commission is overhauled, bills like HB 890 can bring small victories for local producers struggling to operate under the ABC’s iron fist.
“There have been archaic laws for way too long. I’m glad we’re getting closer to catching up to other states,” McCraney says. “Anything that is progressive in moving this state towards laws that’s going to benefit the North Carolina distiller, I am completely supportive of.”
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