It’s tough to run a sports bar that doesn’t open for business on Sundays.
Marc Spaulding said he found that out the hard way in his first few years as the owner of Heroes American Bar and Grille halfway between Jacksonville and Anniston on Alabama 21.
“That’s when all the football games are on,” Spaulding said. “You got the Super Bowl on Sunday, all the NASCAR races, all the big golfing events. It’s when all the sports are on.”
But keeping the lights on Sundays was more trouble than it was worth for Spaulding, who said it was impossible to attract a crowd without being able to serve up cold beer or mixed drinks for the potential sports fans.
Like a lot of places in the state, local regulations with roots in religious temperance movements and the Prohibition era still apply in Calhoun County. It means that for one day each week, the county is effectively dry; no beer, wine or liquor sales in restaurants or stores.
But many cities in the state are starting to challenge that Prohibition mindset. In recent years, laws in the state regulating homebrewing and alcohol content of beer have loosened, and more spots in Alabama are going wet on Sundays — including parts of Calhoun County.
Part 1 - Good Book vs. Good Time | Part 2 - Alabama's Last Dry Soil
Part 3 - A County Cashes In | Part 4 - Shift to Sunday Sales
In 2013, Anniston and Weaver became just the latest places in Alabama to do away with bans on alcohol sales on Sunday. Legislation sponsored by Del Marsh, R-Anniston, let city leaders make the decision to allow bars, restaurants and stores to sell alcohol on Sundays. And if the history of repeal repeats itself — and if the county follows growing trends in the state — it might not be long before seven-day alcohol sales are the norm throughout Calhoun County.
‘Something I couldn’t even dream’
For Spaulding, the law change couldn’t have come at a better time. Along with the legislation giving Weaver’s City Council the authority to allow Sunday sales, a bill passed the same day in Montgomery annexing Heroes into Weaver’s city limits. In August, Spaulding finally got to greet his Sunday sports crowd.
“If you like fantasy football, this is the place to be,” said Spaulding on a recent Sunday, enjoying a beer on tap after spending the morning cleaning out his garage.
Sundays haven’t been Spaulding’s biggest cash cow, but they’re dependable, drawing in a regular crowd of football-hungry fans to enjoy the restaurant’s 20 television screens and sports network access.
While the lack of Sunday alcohol sales had been frustrating from a business standpoint, Spaulding admitted that the speed with which Weaver changed the law and annexed his restaurant took him by surprise.
“I never would have thought a year ago I’d be sitting here on Sunday,” Spaulding said. “It’s something I couldn’t even dream.”
But while Sunday sales in Weaver is a dream-come-true for Spaulding, down the road at Jefferson’s restaurant in Jacksonville, it’s become something of a nightmare for manager Alan Darnall.
“We’re absolutely losing business to Heroes,” Darnall said. “Why wouldn’t they just go down there on Sundays?”
Unlike Heroes before the law change, Jefferson’s is open every Sunday, even without alcohol sales. And while it’s debatable how much regular traffic might be skipping town to get a drink — Darnell said he didn’t know if the restaurant had been losing money since Heroes began opening on Sundays in August — Darnell said it should be a no-brainer for Jacksonville to join its neighbors in changing the law.
“It’s just going to bring in more money,” Darnell said. “Its a win-win for us and them.”
Terry Phillis Sr., the manager of Mellow Mushroom in Oxford, couldn’t agree more.
“It’s something we’ve always wanted,” Phillis said. “It’s frustrating to have to tell people they can’t buy beer.”
If Jacksonville should be in line to get Sunday sales, Phillis said that should go double for Oxford, the second-largest city in the county and the point of access for most visitors passing by on Interstate 20 on their way to Atlanta or Birmingham.
“We’ve actually had to put out a sign that says, ‘Sorry, we can’t serve alcohol on Sunday,’ because so many people ask,” Phillis said. “It doesn’t make sense to them why they can’t have a beer with their pizza.”
‘Doing good … without it.’
Tracking where one can and cannot buy alcohol in Alabama, seven-days per week or not on Sundays, can get confusing. Twenty-five counties in the state still outlaw alcohol sales, though all but two have at least one city where it’s legal to sell liquor. For years the only place to get a drink on Sunday was in the state’s biggest cities: Birmingham, Montgomery, Huntsville and Mobile.
But according to the Alabama League of Municipalities, a trend of smaller municipalities going wet on Sundays has recently started to gain traction. In 2011, Tuscaloosa began selling alcohol on Sundays, with neighboring Northport not far behind. Last year Selma got into the Sunday sales business, along with York, a city of fewer than 3,000 residents near the Mississippi border.
Logically, it would seem Jacksonville and Oxford, Calhoun County’s two fastest-growing cities, might be next in line to join Anniston in Sunday sales.
But as much as places like Mellow Mushroom and Jefferson’s would like to sell alcohol on Sundays, city leaders don’t seem to be on the same page. At least not yet.
“I might live long enough to change my mind, but right now I’d say no,” said Jacksonville Mayor Johnny Smith of going wet on Sundays. “We’ve been doing pretty good all these years without it.”
Smith said he’s heard some murmurs about the Jacksonville City Council getting legislation similar to Anniston’s and Weaver’s into the next session, but the mayor said there hasn’t been any formal discussion about the matter. Smith said he also hasn’t heard from businesses and residents in the community who want to change the law.
In Oxford, City Council members said the subject hasn’t even been broached.
“I don’t think people in Oxford want Sunday sales,” said Councilman Mike Henderson. “There aren’t a lot of establishments that sell alcohol in Oxford.”
Henderson said he would personally oppose alcohol sales on Sunday because of his Baptist faith, and said he suspects most of the council feels about the same.
“I think Sundays are more being with family, for church,” said Councilwoman Charlotte Hubbard. “I don’t think we need to sell alcohol on Sunday.”
It’s unlikely for a city like Oxford or Jacksonville to go wet without local support. Although Anniston and Weaver were only allowed to vote to go wet through state legislation, Del Marsh made it clear that the decision came from each city’s elected officials asking specifically to be allowed Sunday sales.
Marsh said if Oxford’s and Jacksonville’s councils asked him for similar legislation, he’d pass the word along in Montgomery.
“Absolutely,” Marsh said. “If that’s something the city leaders want, then I’d try to pass legislation.”
History might suggest city leaders will want the alcohol sales sooner rather than later.
Like tracking the progress of any alcohol law in the state, figuring out when and why Calhoun County went wet is complicated due to a host of law changes, different votes, and changing attitudes.
According to The Star’s archives, Anniston first went wet in 1961, nearly 30 years after the city voted to remain dry following the 1933 repeal of Prohibition. At the time, Anniston’s change only affected stores, meaning bars — at least the legal variety — were still essentially outlawed, and restaurant patrons couldn’t get a beer on tap or a glass of wine with dinner. It wasn’t until 1976 that Jacksonville caught up to the county seat.
Things seem to have a way of catching up a little quicker now. When Tuscaloosa hosted a Sunday wet-dry referendum in 2011, it took neighboring Northport less than a year to push for a similar law change.
Cities and counties typically change the law for economic reasons, said Nancy King Dennis, the spokeswoman for the Alabama Retail Association.
“A lot of times it can have a domino effect in nearby cities,” Dennis said. “It’s almost always done in the name of tourism and keeping money in the city.”
The hope for an economic and tourism boost can even be seen in the name of the legislation that made Anniston and Weaver seven-day alcohol cites. The Anniston City Council titled the legislation “the Anniston Ecotourism Beverage Bill’ to reflect the city’s desire to become a destination for bike enthusiasts.
Weaver Mayor Wayne Willis doesn’t expect the county to remain dry on Sunday forever, either. He’s already begun pushing the council to think of ways of trying to lower sales tax requirements on liquor served at restaurants so the city can remain competitive when luring establishments from Jacksonville.
For now, Spaulding said, he enjoys being the choice destination for residents in the north part of the county. Although sports fans have been taking advantage of Heroes’ many television screens with non-stop action, Spaulding said, Sunday’s clientele has been as diverse as the rest of the week including families and people making pit stops between Anniston and Jacksonville. It’s an ideal customer base, he said.
“I don’t know,” he said about when the rest of the county might catch up with Anniston and Weaver. “But I hope it’s not soon.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.