Bar Belle: Closing bars early will do more damage than a drunk frat boy in a fistfight


My body is on high alert since hearing the news that Metro Councilman Tom Owen, D-8, is thinking about proposing a citywide ordinance to change last call from 4 a.m. to 2 a.m. Adrenaline pumps faster than fists in the air at an AC/DC concert. And speaking of fists, mine have been clinched tight since last week, which makes it hard to drink a beer.

Due to some shady shenanigans at Cahoots, basically the red-headed stepchild of our nightlife scene, people are quick to point fingers, blame all for the actions of one, and propose blanketed ways to fix a problem.

Louisville’s 4 a.m. bar closing time is one of the best facts to pull out when you’re trying to top people from other cities: “You have an NFL team and IKEA? Well, our bars don’t close till 4! Boom!” I can only think of a handful of places with closing times as late as ours, and that’s Vegas, New York City, Miami, New Orleans and all of Alaska (they’ve gotta do something to keep Sarah Palin there).

The late closing time, mixed with our thriving bourbon scene and garnished with the plethora of bars and restaurants in Louisville makes for the perfect cocktail when it comes to attracting thirsty tourists and combatting brain drain. It’s a big part of our city’s past and present reputation — after all, we started as a debaucherous river city known for its fast women and flowing booze. Let’s just say river boats weren’t docking on our shores to go to church.

The Old Seelbach Bar has stood the test of time and proves Louisville's nightlife has always thrived. | Courtesy of Seelbach Hilton

The Old Seelbach Bar has stood the test of time and proves Louisville’s nightlife has always thrived. | Courtesy of Seelbach Hilton

At this point, Councilman Owen is still gauging interest before forging ahead. Hopefully he realizes it’ll do more harm than good and get back to issues that really matter, like adding bike lanes, keeping dogs on leashes and disappearing bumble bees.

But I am merely a patron of our bars — swanky, dive-y and everything in between (that’s you, Freddie’s) — so I decided to talk to a few bar owners to get their take on the issue. Because while the mandate would just inconvenience me as a consumer, it might grossly affect the way they make a living.

playTodd Roman, one of the owners of Play Dance Bar in Butchertown, says there would be an immediate impact on revenue once the ordinance was passed, but he believes the community would eventually adjust and people would start their night earlier. However, not all establishments have the finances to withstand that transition, he points out.

“The 2-3 a.m. is a significant time block. It is the downside of your key hours, which are 11 p.m.-2 a.m.,” explains Roman. “There are many restaurant/bar employees who are completing their shifts by 2 a.m., and as we all know, the service industry has a large impact, all which occurs during those later hours.”

He ultimately believes a 2 a.m. closing time would not be a silver bullet to most bars, but if unruly patrons are the genesis of this problem, the fix begins with proper management.

“If you allow rowdy behavior/atmosphere and add liquor, you can expect problems regardless of what time it is,” he says.

The Back Door

The Back Door

John Dant of The Back Door agrees that changing last call to 2 a.m. will not solve any problems.

“It is the responsibility of the owners to maintain control of customers,” he says. “Why should all be punished for one being irresponsible?”

Dant estimates the city would lose at least $50,000 a year in tax revenue from his bar alone if he had to stop serving at 2 a.m. Add that number to the lost wages and tips his employees would have made — aka taxable income — and you’ve got yourself a much bigger issue than a street fight.

Matthew Landan of Haymarket Whiskey Bar believes Owen is misguided in his belief that closing bars earlier is beneficial to the community.

Matthew Landan of Haymarket Whiskey Bar

Matthew Landan of Haymarket Whiskey Bar

“Councilman Owen’s wet blanket approach is good for a fire but not good for Louisville’s booming tourism and hospitality industry,” he says. “For every bar like Cahoots that generates significant bad press, there are dozens like Haymarket and Seidenfadens and Nachbar that take the responsibility of having the privilege of serving alcoholic beverages until 4 a.m. very seriously. One size does not fit all in this circumstance, and if Councilman Owen’s proposal succeeds, it will be a serious self-inflicted wound to the city’s ascendant hospitality industry.”

Landan also emphasizes that the hours between 2-4 a.m. are prime time for bar and restaurant workers to wind down. Having been a server in his 20s, he knows the importance of grabbing a drink and socializing after a long shift.

“Without those late-night hours, folks in the service industry never get to enjoy the very industry they work in,” he says.

Landan suggests an increase in police presence in bar districts — preferably on foot or bike.

“If there were officers walking the beat or biking down the street, that alone would work to let people know the community is being served and protected by its public servants,” he says. “Police cruisers doing 30 miles an hour down Bardstown Road doesn’t say community policing in quite the same way.”

He also believes the creation of other bar districts, like NuLu, downtown and Portland, will help siphon off people from overcrowded districts. He says the rise in property values in the Highlands is directly tied to the neighborhood becoming an entertainment district.

O'Shea's Irish Pub

O’Shea’s Irish Pub

“Now that the values have skyrocketed and pushed out many of the original residents, the new investment-class landowners want to see a quieter neighborhood, and I understand that,” he explains. “But there are mechanisms in place to hold accountable bars and businesses that do not take their responsibilities seriously.”

Highlands bar owner Tom O’Shea estimates that about 5-8 percent of his week’s sales at O’Shea’s Irish Pub and Patrick O’Shea’s downtown comes from the hours between 2 and 4 a.m., but he believes people would start to come out earlier if last call was pushed up.

Asked if an earlier last call would solve disorderly behavior, he points out, “No, some people will always be unable to handle their alcohol, but issues might happen a bit earlier in the evenings, which might make neighbors having issues at 12 and 1 a.m. better than having issues at 3 or 4 a.m.”

Dennie Humphrey of the Monkey Wrench is no stranger to last-call licenses. He’s been fighting for years to obtain a 4 a.m. license from the Original Highlands Neighborhood Association while other establishments near and far get them without a problem. He believes the 4 a.m. closing time is what gives Louisville its mystique and allows people of all industries a chance to have happy hour no matter what time is.

Dennie Humphrey of Monkey Wrench

Dennie Humphrey of Monkey Wrench

“The money really comes between 1 and 3 a.m.; the last hour is mostly people finishing up and cleaning up in the normal bar scene,” he says. “But those sales over the course of the year are substantial enough to make or break a bar, and I can attest to that personally.”

Humphrey also believes it’s the management, not the hours, that lead to problems: “Face it, if (the hours) are changed till 2 a.m., people will just start earlier, and if the place is not managed correctly and drinks are less than $2, then you will always have drunkards, as the fine historian Tom Owen would put it.”