Local Bars Are Starting to Reopen by Adding Food Items

Local bar owners said they were stung when the state of Florida shut them down — twice — because of coronavirus concerns. But some are finding ways to reopen: adding sandwiches, appetizers and other food items alongside their alcohol. You could call it the pb&j shuffle.

Bars in Florida were initially shut down by the state in March along with many other businesses and then allowed to re-open in early June; but they were shut down again three weeks later after state regulators said that crowding at a few bars contributed to an uptick in coronavirus cases.

Recently, bars started reopening after owners realized that the state no longer requires a minimum amount of sales come from food, WUSF’s Health News Florida reports. One Plant City bar owner told the station that her investment — other than paying for a food-service license from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation — was a $14 crockpot.

In Lakeland a number of bar owners took advantage and reopened after obtaining the state license that several said cost around $400 and adding food items; they are still under rules allowing them to seat no more than 50 percent of normal capacity.

The process isn’t as simple as getting a license and a crockpot, Geoff Luebkemann, the senior vice president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, told the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun Sentinel.

In addition to restaurant equipment, the bar owner needs food safety certifications, training “and the physical ability to support food service and food safety,” and not every bar can support that, Luebkemann said.

Statewide, 1,657 applications were filed for food service permit in August; it’s not known how many of those were from bar owners.

Some of the food may be just right for you. But don’t expect a gourmet restaurant meal.

At the elegant Revival cocktail lounge at 119 S. Kentucky Ave., the main menu items are peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a chicken salad croissant.

Owner Jeannie Weaver said her food is good. “But we don’t sell too many sandwiches,” she said with a laugh. “We’re just doing what we have to do to conform.”

The food service license comes with added responsibility to avoid food-safety risks, Weaver said. A bottle of liquor can sit on a shelf for a few years, but not food, she notes. 

Dan Thumberg, founder of Swan Brewing at 115 W. Pine St. in Lakeland, said Weaver’s pb&j idea was a smart one because comfort food reminds people of better times.

But Thumberg said his burger with tots doesn’t take a back seat to any comfort food.

During normal times, Swan Brewing offered several rotating food trucks that parked outside the business. But he said that can’t be done now because the food service license requires Swan Brewing to operate  all of its food business.

Thumberg said he partnered financially with a single food truck operator, Cuban B’s. In addition to burgers, they serve other sandwiches, empanadas and baked goods.

A common theme from the bar owners interviewed by LkldNow is that the state has been particularly harsh on bars.

Thumberg said his business is way down. He said the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulates the state’s bars, should have come down hard on bars that didn’t follow social distancing regulations instead of closing all bars down.

Gus Palas, whose wife Lisa Lynne Palas owns La La Land Lakeland, 3239 S. Florida Ave., said bars are “an easy way  for the state to say, ‘We’re cracking down,’ and look like they’re doing something” about the pandemic.

Palas said La La Land just got clearance from the state and should be open within a week, possibly Tuesday. He said the menu hasn’t been finalized.

Conn O’Leary, one of the owners of  the soon-to-open Rec Room, 202 N. Massachusetts Ave., agreed that bars “are an easy target for the state to crack down on.” 

The O’Leary said Rec Room is on the verge of getting a final state inspection and the hope is to be open within a few weeks. Rec Room will serve hot dogs, popcorn and what O’Leary described as  “walking tacos” that are eaten inside of a bag with a fork.  

O’Leary said the original plan was for a kitchen to be built inside a refurbished 20- by 8-foot shipping container next to their patio; that plan will take time to unfold since it requires several layers of city approval.

“We had to have food now”  to open the place, O’Leary said. So they’re introducing a temporary menu that includes hot dogs. He calls it “bridge food.”

The original plan for patio food service is still on but it will take several months for everything to happen with the shipping container. “We didn’t want to rush it,” he said.

The plan is to serve a variety of food but the main draw of the future kitchen will be “smash burgers” that are pounded on the grill, O’Leary said.

Solomon Wassef owns Lakeland Loft, 108 S. Tennessee Ave., which has re-opened. The jazz club serves Mediterranean appetizers and dips, including hummus, and a variety of cheese boards.

Wassef said the coronavirus has significantly hurt his business, but said he’s open because his workers have  mouths to feed and “making something is better than making nothing.”

Wassef also plans to reopen his Hookah Palace, 122 S. Kentucky Ave., in a few weeks. He will serve only one food item there: hot dogs.