Cheers to bar owners who take a stand — even if they take it too far

Restaurateurs and bar owners tend to shy away from taking bold political stands in public, and for a very understandable reason: it’s bad for business. There isn’t much to be gained, aside from the gratitude of a few customers, but there can be a lot to lose — like, roughly half your clientele. So I’m always impressed when the proprietor of a bar or restaurant speaks out on a hot-button issue, regardless of what side they’re on.

A local example of this attracted national attention earlier this month. Anne Verrill — proprietor of Grace, a classy restaurant in Portland, and the Foreside Tavern & Side Bar, in Falmouth — wrote a post on Grace’s Facebook page protesting the sale of military-grade assault weapons to civilians. She spoke out following the massacre in Orlando, where Omar Mateen used an assault-style rifle, a Sig Sauer MCX, to murder 49 people and maim even more.

“Let me be clear, this is not a political issue,” Verrill wrote in the post, which attracted a swarm of vitriolic comments and has since been taken down. “This is a human rights issue. If you own this gun, or you condone the ownership of this gun for private use, you may no longer enter either of my restaurants, because the only thing I want to teach my children is love.”

While I’m impressed by Verrill’s stand, I also think she went too far by vowing to ban customers based on their views on this issue. Banning the actual assault weapons from her establishments strikes me as a wise and reasonable decision, but blacklisting people solely based on their opinions is intolerant and impractical. (How would one enforce such a ban, anyway? Would the hostess ask: “How many in your party, and do any members of your party support the sale of assault weapons?”?)

Bars and restaurants have traditionally been gathering places that foster conversation and debate among friends and strangers alike. In her entirely justified outrage, Verrill went a step too far and provoked more polarization than necessary, but I applaud her for taking a stand and raising the assault-weapons issue at a time when too many others (politicians, in particular) were content to limit their response to “thoughts and prayers.”

Maine Beer Company's motto printed on its bottle caps. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Maine Beer Company’s motto printed on its bottle caps. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

The other public stand by a bar owner that caught my attention this month has thus far received much less attention than Verrill’s post, though that could change any day now. On June 7, The Snug, a pub in Portland, announced via Facebook that it would no longer be serving local craft beers by brewers who operate tasting rooms and charge for samples.

“Craft brewers … have created an environment where small bars and restaurants are being asked to dig our own graves,” the post reads. “When craft brewers changed Maine State liquor laws allowing them to charge for samples, they effectively became bars. The only problem is, they are bars that are not subject to the same kitchen and food requirements nor the same liquor licenses. To add insult to injury, they are allowed to serve their clients to the verge of inebriation and then send them home with an armload to go; a successful end-around to the off-premise laws that deny bars and restaurants the same luxury.”

Snug owner Margaret Lyons has always been an exception to my earlier observation regarding bar owners’ reticence to speak out, so it’s not surprising to me that she’s leading the charge on an issue many other proprietors in Portland only grumble about. The rising popularity of “tasting rooms” has transformed some craft brewers from being a bar’s supplier to its competitor. The Snug has been particularly pinched by this trend because it’s located near East Bayside, a neighborhood recently nicknamed “Yeast Bayside” due to the profusion of brewers who’ve set up shop in this long-neglected part of town, where industrial space is relatively cheap.

But as with Verrill, I think Lyons, in her justified frustration, has gone a bit too far on this issue. I can understand pulling product from Rising Tide and Oxbow, breweries that operate tasting rooms within a few blocks of The Snug and undoubtedly poach some of the pub’s customers. It’s impossible for Lyons to sell those beers at a competitive price, since the brewers don’t have to add the same mark-ups.

But yanking beers from Geary’s and Maine Beer Company, as The Snug has done, seems excessive. The relatively small tasting room Geary’s operates is on Evergreen Drive, out by Riverside Golf Course — nowhere near The Snug. It’s a big stretch to consider that competition. Likewise, Maine Beer Company’s tasting room is in Freeport. It’s hard to imagine someone in Portland deciding to drive up there for a Peeper Ale instead of walking or cabbing to The Snug, even if the pint costs a bit more.

All the same, cheers to Lyons for being willing to take a stand.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.