David Mathein said it's a sure bet on any given Sunday at his T bones on the Lake restaurant and bar: A group will sit down to order a meal and, when they learn they can't order an alcoholic drink, get up and leave.
“And usually they drive straight across the Buster Boyd Bridge to North Carolina where they can have a drink, and I know because I've watched them,” said Mathein. He says it's been that way since the family-owned business opened on the shores of Lake Wylie in 1994.
“And it doesn't just hurt me when that business drives across the state line, it hurts anyone who lives in York County because that money is gone and not just for the sale of alcohol. That's a small part, because the bulk of it would have been spent on food and a tip for the waitress.”
Mathein says that exodus of Sunday business is the main reason he'll vote yes on Nov. 4 for a referendum to allow alcohol sales at York County restaurants. Rock Hill voters approved Sunday alcohol sales for restaurants in 2006 by a 61 percent margin. Tega Cay restaurants also serve alcohol on Sunday. If the vote is approved, York County restaurants could be serving alcoholic drinks as early as Nov. 23. Grocery stores and convenience stores would still be prohibited from selling alcohol on Sunday, although Tega Cay voters will decide on a separate referendum to allow stores there to sell beer and wine on Sunday.
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Mathein, who lives in York County and co-owns the largest restaurant on Wylie, is open 7 days a week. He says his Sunday sales are one third of his $12,000-to-$14,000 Saturday business this time of year. He estimated alcohol makes up about 20 to 25 percent of his total sales.
“To me, it's purely economics. If York County wants to continue to grow and have a healthy tax base, our restaurants need to be able to offer what Charlotte restaurants offer,” he said.
In Mecklenburg County, beer and wine can be sold in stores on Sunday and restaurants can sell alcohol.
A well-organized effort is promoting Sunday alcohol sales in York through the Citizens & Business for York County Committee and the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce. There's no formal opposition.
“Quite frankly, I was surprised there's no formal opposition, because I've certainly not been contacted by any group opposed to Sunday alcohol sales,” said Wanda Hemphill, director of York County's Registration and Elections office.
The Citizens & Business committee has put up dozens of campaign signs around the county which simply say “Vote Yes – Citizens & Business for York County.” And in the past two weeks, hand-lettered signs have appeared that say “Vote No for Sunday alcohol sales.” No group or individual is identified as sponsoring the signs.
Pastor Jerry Sosebee of Northside Baptist Church describes himself as a “teetotaler” who is opposed to Sunday alcohol sales in York County. But he's not surprised there is no organized opposition.
“Less than 20 percent of York County attends church and I'm not pessimistic, but I just don't see how this referendum would fail when you have those kind of numbers,” Sosebee said. “I think the least we could do, is take a break from alcohol sales on Sunday. But clearly I'm in the minority.”
Chet Miller co-chairs the pro-alcohol committee and says one of the best things going for the county-wide vote is the success of Sunday sales in Rock Hill.
“You've got restaurants like McHale's in downtown Rock Hill that is basically doubling its size after getting Sunday sales,” said Miller, who works as an unpaid volunteer with the group and who doesn't drink alcohol. “The bottom line is that from an economic standpoint, it's a win-win situation for the community and the businesses.”
He predicts that if the referendum is passed, food and beverage sales at existing restaurants would rise at least 12 percent, the equivalent of $1.5 million in new revenue. And he says the county would gain $75,000 annually from a $3,000-per-restaurant permit fee.
Jeff Brown, manager of Outback Steakhouse in Rock Hill, says Sundays used to be the slowest day of the week for his restaurant.
“But since the (Rock Hill alcohol sales) referendum passed on '06, Sundays are now our third busiest behind Saturday and Friday,” he said. “And our Sunday sales are up between 30 and 40 percent from before the vote.”
Brown said the “plain truth” is that with Charlotte growth coming south and the current downturn in the economy, York County restaurants need any break they can get to remain viable.
“Some restaurants don't even open on Sunday because they can't sell alcohol. And what a lot of people don't realize is that restaurants won't sell that much alcohol on Sunday,” Brown said. “Maybe 10 percent of our increased total sales is alcohol, the vast majority is increased food sales.
“Charlotte is only a 10-minute drive down I-77, and if a group of guys want to watch the Panthers game and have a beer in a restaurant, they will hit the highway, and their money will go with them.”