COLUMBIA — A brewing battle over renewing liquor licenses in Columbia could create new hurdles for bars to meet statewide if they want to keep selling martinis, margaritas and shots of whiskey.
State Sen. Dick Harpootlian is leading the charge to have the state reject new liquor licenses for Cover 3 and Group Therapy in the capital city's bar-laden Five Points district, because they do not serve enough food as spelled out in South Carolina law. Court hearings are scheduled over the next two weeks.
Harpootlian lives near the longtime popular destination, a busy shopping and dining district by day that becomes the city’s main gathering spot for University of South Carolina students late at night. He said he ran for office last year, in part, because of the years of fruitless efforts to curb unruly behavior from Five Points bars and patrons.
Harpootlian is working with neighborhood leaders to stop more liquor license renewals at Five Points bars after they successfully blocked the license last year by new owners of a bar, Five Points Roost. A state Administrative Law Court judge cited the lack of food service among the reasons for rejecting the license.
The S.C. Constitution says businesses must "engage primarily and substantially in the preparation and serving of meals" to receive a liquor license. A state law adds that a business with a liquor license must have seating for at least 40 customers, a kitchen with a stove and refrigerator, and a menu, and must serve hot meals at least once a day.
Typically, bars in South Carolina have had few problems getting liquor licenses renewed. They needed mainly to meet standards set out in a State Law Enforcement Division checklist.
But Harpootlian, a prominent lawyer and former state Democratic Party chairman, is trying to change that by emphasizing how businesses serving liquor are supposed to sell food.
"Does it look like a restaurant or is it one of these places that is just a bar with a large concrete floor?" he asked.
Five Points has become more violent at night in recent years with several shootings, as well as the recent kidnapping and killing of student Samantha Josephson, Harpootlian said. The bars also have become more crowded as USC added 8,000 students over the past decade.
While it's not his aim, Harpootlian acknowledges that winning the latest cases could set a new standard for issuing liquor licenses across South Carolina.
"This is something that needs to be done to prevent what we're seeing in Five Points," he said.
Worried about the precedent set from last year's license rejection for Five Points Roost, the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association asked at the time for a delay in enforcing that ruling until regulations about food sales were clarified.
But nothing has changed. Harpootlian shot down an amendment in the state budget this year that would have put the food-selling threshold at 15 percent of total revenue.
Requiring a food sales minimum could hurt craft cocktail spots that are becoming popular, said Megan Deschaine, a board member of the U.S. Bartenders Guild's Charleston's chapter. Selling more food would not stop bars from over-serving customers if they don't follow proper practices, she said.
"The solution would be very temporary," Deschaine said of food sales limits. "It's illogical."
The S.C. Department of Revenue, which issues the licenses, did not answer a question Tuesday about how often liquor permits are rejected because of the lack of food service.
Gov. Henry McMaster, a Columbia native who appoints the agency's director, supports Harpootlian's efforts to stop businesses that mainly serve alcohol, his spokesman Brian Symmes said. The pair met Monday to discuss the issue with leaders from the revenue department and SLED.
Among Harpootlian's latest targets is Group Therapy, which is such a Five Points landmark that Hootie & the Blowfish, the rock band formed at USC, named its new concert tour after the bar. The tour starts the same day, May 30, as a court hearing challenging Group Therapy's liquor license renewal.
Steve Taneyhill, a former star USC quarterback who owns Group Therapy, said his 40-year-old business serves food under the rules set out by the state.
"We have a kitchen open all the time," Taneyhill said. "It used to be places had 40 frozen pizzas and a toaster oven. We sell a lot of wings and a lot of tacos."
Nothing in state law defines a minimum threshold for the amount of food that must be sold to hold a liquor license. Still, the judge in the case against Five Points Roost denied the liquor license after finding that food made up 10 percent of total sales.
"I understand there's a lot of politics involved concerning Five Points," Taneyhill said. "It's a tricky situation."
Tricky enough that USC, trying to stem binge drinking by its students, has joined in protests to stop some Five Points liquor licenses.
USC is concerned about bars serving underage students and aggressively pitching their drink specials, university spokesman Jeff Stensland said.
"Late-night drinking as the area’s primary activity endangers our students, places undue burdens on law enforcement, diminishes the quality of life for nearby residents and hampers the area’s ability to attract a diverse group of merchants and patrons," Stensland said.
USC is fighting the liquor license renewal at Cover 3, but not at Group Therapy.
The university's license protests are based on a business' marketing aimed at students, amount of food service and record of providing too many drinks to students, Stensland said. The decision to not fight Group Therapy's license was based on that criteria and not because Taneyhill is a former Gamecock football player, Stensland said.
An attorney representing Cover 3 declined comment Tuesday.
Starting with Cover 3's hearing Thursday, bars across the state face another possibility of a court decision that could block them from getting liquor licenses.
Taneyhill, famous for his cockiness when he played at USC, said he is not planning on losing his ability to serve booze.
"I'm a competitor," Taneyhill said. "I never went into a football game thinking like that."