When Rock Hill voters lifted an age-old ban on Sunday alcohol sales in bars and restaurants last year, Rock Hill's Outback Steakhouse was the first in line to buy a license to sell booze on Sunday.
One year after serving his first glass of cold brew on Sunday, managing partner Jeff Brown said Sunday business is booming.
"It's been wonderful, everything we hoped for and more," Brown said. "Sunday used to be my slowest day; now, it's the third-busiest day of the week."
Rock Hill voters lifted a Sunday ban last November, after an aggressive campaign by restaurateurs who claimed they were losing business to nearby Charlotte, where Sunday sales were legal. After the ban was lifted, a handful of businesses, including Outback, began selling on Sunday by the beginning of December.
Selling booze in grocery and convenience stores on Sunday is still off-limits, but the sale of beer, wine and liquor in restaurants soon could expand.
A York County referendum on the issue is slated for next November's ballot, after a petition with more than 7,500 signatures was approved by election officials last week.
Sales up 40 percent
The Rock Hill businesses serving booze on Sunday say offering customers that option has paid off. Brown said his Sunday sales have increased 30 percent to 40 percent. He's added eight workers on Sunday, and he says out-of-town guests are more prevalent.
"It used to be that someone from out of town would come in, and when they found out we couldn't sell alcohol, they'd ask where they could find it. Then they would leave," Brown said.
Now, those patrons are sticking around, he said.
The wave of new chain restaurants, such as Carraba's or T.G.I. Friday's, hasn't happened as some suggested. But Rick Zioncheck, manager of Chili's Grill and Bar near Manchester Village, agreed the ability to serve alcohol on Sundays has helped his bottom line.
He said Chili's was hesitant to move into a no-beer-on-Sundays market, and he thinks others will give Rock Hill, and York County, a second look if the ban is lifted.
"We've benefited from a great increase on Sundays," Zioncheck said, noting that sales are up on Sundays as much as 50 percent. "It's been a big win for us."
Ron Mathieu, owner of McHale's On Main in downtown Rock Hill, said the new rule on Sunday has translated into a big boost to his Saturday night crowds.
Before Sunday alcohol sales were permitted, his pub closed at midnight on Saturday. Now, it's open until 2 a.m.
"My business has doubled on Saturday nights," Mathieu said, noting that a late-night surge of college students and other young patrons starts to arrive after 11 p.m.
He said before Sunday sales were legal, many of those customers would have driven to Charlotte, where bars stay open later. "Before, I wouldn't even book music or anything," Mathieu said. "It was like any other weeknight."
Contrary to opponents' criticisms, Mathieu said Sunday hasn't been a wild party, but "totally casual."
"People don't come in here and get torn up," he said. "They just like having a choice."
Management officials at Chili's and Outback agreed. Both said 90 percent of their Sunday business is from food sales accompanying casual drinkers.
Slight increase in DUI
Critics of Sunday alcohol sales suggested that drunk driving rates on Sunday would increase once the ban was lifted. Data from the Rock Hill Police Department shows that in 2007, there were two more DUI incidents on Sundays after 11 a.m., when most restaurants open, than in 2006. Meanwhile, DUI incidents on the other days of the week have increased by 27 percent, police said.
The Rev. Jerry Devinney, pastor of Oakdale Baptist Church, said even one life lost to alcohol is too many. Devinney, a staunch opponent of Sunday sales during last year's campaign, continues to speak against the practice.
"How much is one life worth?" Devinney asked last week. "Regardless of how much money is being made, it's not worth the life of one child, one teenager or one parent."
Deviney said he understands and respects giving people a chance to vote. But he wants voters to consider the moral health of the community, he said, not just the strength of their bank accounts.
"Will one more day to drink make York County a better place?" he asked. "What's next? It's like playing Russian Roulette with our community."
Other pastors are still deciding how to fight the sale of alcohol on Sunday. Mike O'Dell, director of the York Baptist Association, said some pastors are independently encouraging opposition to Sunday alcohol sales. But the organization hasn't taken an official position on the pending countywide referendum.
But even with conservative critics offering sharp rhetoric, McHale's owner Mathieu said Bible Belt churchgoers have patronized his pub since it opened on Sundays.
"It's been my experience that the more you drink, the more you need religion," Mathieu quipped. "It's all about personal choice."
Sunday alcohol sales by the numbers
Establishments selling alcohol on Sundays in Rock Hill
Percent of voters approving Sunday sales last year
DUI incidents after 11 a.m. on Sundays this year
DUI incidents after 11 a.m.
on Sundays last year
Additional workers on Sundays at Outback steakhouse since the ban was lifted