For Long Beach bars, this was a year of navigating rules—and sometimes breaking them—to stay afloat

There are cases upon cases of stale lagers and India pale ales on nearly every tabletop inside Poor Richard’s waiting to go back to the distributor to be exchanged for fresh supplies. One of the oldest bars in East Long Beach, Poor Richard’s has been closed nearly every day for the past year because of restrictions guiding bar reopenings, but co-owner Matt Peterson is hopeful his business might reopen soon.

The hope comes from a loophole that the bar hasn’t been able to exploit until now: the host license. With a host license Poor Richard’s will be able to sell food, something it hasn’t done since it offered “broil-your-own” steak dinners in the 1970s. And under guidelines set out by the state’s Department of Alcoholic and Beverage Control and the city, the license will allow the bar to act like a restaurant, which means it can open indoors, so long as it serves a bona fide meal.

Currently bars are not allowed to open unless they sell food, but they could be allowed to open in a few weeks for outdoor service when the city enters the “orange” tier in the state’s color-coded system determining when it’s safe to loosen restrictions. But Peterson said serving outdoors isn’t an option for Poor Richard’s, a windowless bar that shares a small parking lot with several other businesses.

“How can I put tables outside if I can’t see what’s going on?” said Peterson, who also holds ownership interests in Legends, The Ordinaire and other restaurants across the city. “This is an old-fashioned bar; there are no windows and there’s no sightline.”

A bar’s ability to reopen has been tied as much to vaccinations and COVID-19 positivity rates as it has been to location, existing outdoor space and proximity to food. The Stache on Fourth Street benefitted from opening its own restaurant, called Sideburns, before the pandemic, which has allowed it and the V-Room across the street to reopen.

The Reno Room, an iconic Long Beach bar on the corner of Redondo Avenue and Broadway, operates off a restaurant license held by the Mexican restaurant it shares a footprint with.

Others have partnered with outside vendors or sold their own food items, or have remained closed. Peterson alleged that others have skirted the rules, operating modern-day speakeasies or ignoring rules regarding food sales altogether.

“It’s very frustrating to try to comport through protocols when there are other licenses that are exactly like mine and going around them,” Peterson said.

The 48 License 

There are 99 different liquor licenses offered by the ABC. Traditional bars like Poor Richards, Shannon’s Bayshore or The Falcon are known as “48s.” That means they don’t sell food and you have to be 21 to enter, which has made it more difficult to reopen for some.

Long Beach Director of Health and Human Services Kelly Colopy said current guidelines have left bar operators with a choice: “Act like a restaurant,” she said, or stay closed.

“If they want to continue to be a bar that doesn’t sell food, they can’t stay open,” Colopy said.

Colopy said that the state purposely put broader restrictions on bars reopening because of the nature of bars and the behaviors that often accompany alcohol consumption. Selling a bona fide meal was meant as a tool to limit how intoxicated people get at these establishments, she said.

“The more people drink without food, it’s hard to distance, they talk louder, there is more interaction,” Colopy said. “When [the state] looks at bars it’s one of the highest risk factors on the COVID-scale, so they closed them.”

There are 54 “48 bars” in the city, and while many remain closed, others have found creative ways to stay open.

Ron Hodges, who owns both Shannon’s Bayshore and a number of businesses on Pine, including a second Shannon’s location, said that technically Shannon’s Bayshore is a restaurant. While Shannon’s on Pine does serve food, Hodges said that the Second Street location has been able to reopen through a restaurant permit he took out nearly 20 years ago.

The location has never had to serve food to stay open but under current guidelines Hodges said he’s returned to serving food at the Second Street location to keep it open.

“We had a lot of complaints about Bayshore being open,” Hodges said. “Somehow they didn’t understand or believe that I had a restaurant permit for forever.”

Colopy confirmed that the location does have a grandfathered license that allows it to be classified as a restaurant, but said it still has to pass kitchen inspections like any other restaurant.

In a few weeks, “48s” won’t have to sell food to open if the city enters the orange tier, but they’ll have to operate outdoors, and Colopy is unsure what the restrictions of that tier will bring. When the city hits the “yellow” tier, bars could finally reopen inside, however, while most sectors of the economy would be allowed to operate at closer to normal capacity, bars that don’t sell food would be limited to 25% capacity.

Colopy said a new “green” tier is being discussed at the state level and vaccination rates and herd immunity could likely factor into a county entering the green. While the new tier could resemble a return to normal, it’s unclear if bars would get the full green light to reopen.

Until then they’ll have to serve food to stay open, and that doesn’t mean popcorn, Colopy said.

A ‘bona fide meal’

The ABC requires bars to serve a bona fide meal to reopen and operate under the same rules restaurants do, which now includes the opportunity to operate indoors. While the rules are vague, the ABC guidance says that snacks like chips, nuts, and appetizers like pizza bites or flautas or side dishes like onion rings and salads do not count.

A bona fide meal is a what a “reasonable person might consider to be a meal for breakfast, lunch, or dinner,” according to the department’s website.

John Carr, a spokesman for the department, said that the rules don’t require food to be sold with each drink, but that food sales should be the primary focus with alcohol sales being a secondary service.

“The ABC will look at the totality of the licensed business’ operations in determining whether it is serving legitimate meals in a bona fide manner or if the food is a mere pretext for opening under the Blueprint,” Carr said in an email, referring to the state’s color-coded tier system known as Blueprint for a Safer Economy.

The rule has been interpreted broadly by bars in Long Beach. Some have partnered with people who sell tacos to provide food for patrons while others have sold Ziplock baggies of almonds to satisfy the food requirement.

Tony Betancourt, a bartender at Bottlecraft inside The Hangar at LBX said that the business, which holds a license from the ABC that technically qualifies it as a restaurant, takes pride in doing things the right way. Bottlecraft initially partnered with 5000 Pies, and then vendors inside The Hangar before being told by the city that it was considered a bar and needed to provide the food itself.

They adapted and started selling hotdogs and chips for $2, a move that was controversial for some patrons, some of whom have been verbally abusive to staff and other customers at the thought of having to buy food in order to buy beer.

‘I’ve had people tell me ‘You must be a Democrat; that’s why you have the food option,’ or that the hotdog would serve as my tip,” Betancourt said.

Earlier this year Bottlecraft began selling T-shirts to benefit the staff. The shirt depicts a hotdog fighting a beer bottle to commemorate the struggles the pandemic brought on. Without the kitchen that’s built out behind the bar, Betancourt said the bar would likely be the only business inside The Hangar still closed.

Betancourt said he understands the spirit of the food requirement, but ultimately it has hurt a lot of businesses. Bottlecraft saw drops in sales of nearly 75% when they were forced to close and are just now working back to the types of sales they saw pre-pandemic.

But with a loosening of rules and more people getting vaccinated, the public has let its guard down and he’s concerned that his job as a bartender could contribute to further spread of the virus.

“Of course I want to make an income, but not at the expense of others,” Betancourt said. “There’s part of me that’s like ‘Maybe we should’ve been shut down.'”

Finally Reopening

Last week marked the second St. Patrick’s Day in a row that bars in Long Beach remained shuttered. Normally packed to the gunwales with patrons drinking green beer, bars without food options had to keep their doors closed.

As Poor Richard’s waits for its host license to be granted, Peterson and Michael Moore, Peterson’s business partner of 25 years, are putting the finishing touches on what they hope is a grand reopening in the next few weeks.

Moore hangs historic photos of Long Beach on the wall as Peterson works on the logistics of the license and how plastic partitions will be positioned for indoor seating to work safely at Poor Richard’s.

Bars are important parts of communities, Peterson said, and he’s hopeful they can survive.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Long Beach or New York, all of these neighborhoods have neighborhood bars and pubs where you go to be with friends,” Peterson said. “They’re safe environments and mellow, wonderful, flavorful places to hang out. “

As far as the bona fide meal requirement, Peterson said he’s hopeful to partner with one of the neighboring businesses, Marri’s, and sell pizza slices to patrons when they return.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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