When The Whiskey Barrel converted into The Yard, the owner got a restaurant license. Photo courtesy of The Yard

It will come as no surprise that I love bars. Even when I go to a restaurant, I tend to try to sit at the bar. I love being able to chat with the bartender and watch him or her make cocktails, I enjoy being able to talk to other patrons, I like being able to order just a drink without feeling rushed, and of course, I am a big fan of trying a specialty drink for the first time.

I never thought about what makes a bar a bar until the pandemic closed bars. Once restaurants were allowed to reopen, I noticed that several of my favorite bars were back in business, too – turns out they were technically restaurants.

The distinction lies in the licensing. In order to qualify for a restaurant license in Maine, a significant percentage of the profits must come from food sales on the premises. For example, in municipalities of 50,000 people or more, a restaurant must make at least $50,000 a year from food sales. (The amount is prorated for seasonal restaurants.) There are other factors as well, such as the requirement for a restaurant to have the proper kitchen equipment for cooking and storing food. Bars often offer a limited food selection but are not required to do so.

Bar and restaurant owners have been scrambling to pivot and adapt to the new circumstances brought by the pandemic. Jay Mahoney, owner of The Yard (formerly known as The Whiskey Barrel) in Portland, decided to reinvent his business when he realized that he didn’t know where things were headed or when bars would be allowed to reopen indoors. He changed from a bar license to a restaurant one, redid his existing outdoor space to feel more like a lounge/bar, and built an additional separate outdoor space. Even with social distancing, he can now fit 50 patrons inside and 50 in each of his two outdoor spaces. He’s added a menu of extreme (nonalcoholic) shakes to encourage families to come, offers live music outdoors (small groups only for the time being), and has his eye on adding a rooftop deck and/or a burger bar in the future if things go well.

The North Point’s new outdoor setup. Photo courtesy of the The North Point

Dan Talmatch, owner of The North Point in Portland, has had to make significant changes as well. A few years ago, he had 10 outdoor tables, but that changed about three years ago. Luckily, he kept the furniture in storage, making it possible for him to set up a lovely outdoor seating area once allowed to do so. That said, he still had to invest in to-go containers, disposable glasses and utensils, and pay the resulting increased trash costs. With no PPP loan and no staff, he runs the entire operation with his wife and stepdaughter, focusing primarily on cold menu items, such as charcuterie plates. Even though he has a restaurant license, his customers view The North Point primarily as a bar; takeout food and to-go beverage sales plummeted once people were allowed to sit outside again.

Bar and restaurant owners are frustrated by the lack of clarity and consistency surrounding the new rules. “It’s like the Wild West,” said Talmatch, referring to the constantly shifting guidance on things like hours of operation, seating and cleaning procedures. Consequently, several owners have decided not to reopen for the time being, waiting until restrictions have eased a bit more.

Given the increased flexibility that restaurants have, I suspect we’ll see more bar owners apply for restaurant licenses. If they’re as creative and as adaptable as Mahoney and Talmatch, they’ll maintain their essential bar atmosphere.

Angie Bryan is a former diplomat who is enjoying getting acquainted with her new home in Portland, one cocktail at a time.

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