February 22, 2021 10:14:53 AM
STARKVILLE -- Aldermen voted unanimously Friday afternoon to allow brewpubs and small craft breweries in the city's Leisure and Entertainment District to sell beer, wine and light spirits on premises without having to also sell food.
As City Attorney Chris Latimer put it, he and aldermen went "back to the drawing board" after previous drafts of the ordinance change couldn't gain consensus, and they "came full circle" to approve something that looked very much like the first draft.
The ordinance, as passed, exempts brewpubs and small craft breweries located in the designated district -- which includes much of downtown, Russell Street and the Cotton District -- from a city requirement that food must account for 25 percent of gross sales at businesses that sell alcohol for on-premises consumption.
By state law, a brewpub allows the manufacture and sale of beer (up to 8 percent alcohol by weight), light wine (up to 5 percent alcohol by weight) and light spirits (up to 4 percent alcohol by weight), on-site, with a manufacturing limit of 75,000 gallons per year. Small craft breweries legally can produce considerably more (60,000 barrels a year, which is equal to about 1.8 million gallons).
Most immediately, the ordinance change will allow John Higgins, owner of Tupelo-based Spring Street Cigars, to open a cigar lounge and brewpub in the old Mugshots Restaurant building at the corner of Main Street and Douglas L. Conner Drive. Aldermen have already granted cigar lounges in the Leisure and Entertainment District an exemption to the city's anti-smoking ordinance, but an establishment that allows smoking still cannot serve food, making a separate exemption for Higgins' brewpub necessary.
Originally, aldermen only looked to consider the food exemption for brewpubs and small craft breweries in the Leisure and Entertainment District, but they later held a public hearing on whether to apply the exemption citywide. Ultimately, fearing "unintended consequences" -- such as businesses that the spirit of the law never intended to exempt from food sales possibly finding legal loopholes -- the board restricted the exemption to its original form.
"Nothing with alcohol (law) in Mississippi is simple," Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk said. "... We were trying to look at this from a public safety and enforcement standpoint."
Brewery owner: Ordinance as written 'makes no sense'
In the public hearing before the board's vote Friday, the co-owner of Starkville's only small craft brewery implored aldermen to allow the food exemption to also apply to her business. It was to no avail.
Jean Mohammahi-Aragh, who co-owns Mayhew Junction on Eckford Drive, which is outside the Leisure and Entertainment District, said she understood restricting brewpubs to a certain area, but she thought the exemption for small craft breweries should apply citywide.
"We are against this ordinance as it is written because it provides an exception that doesn't apply to us," she told the board. "... Restricting this (exception) to breweries in the Leisure and Entertainment District makes no sense to me."
Mayhew Junction has operated for about five years on Eckford Drive, Mohammahi-Aragh said, manufacturing craft beer that Clark Beverage distributes to restaurants and other businesses with a retail permit.
By state law, a small craft brewery can reserve 10 percent of its product for on-premise consumption, which Mohammahi-Aragh said would amount to about 10 gallons a month at Mayhew Junction.
Under the current business model, Mayhew Junction sells intermittent tours in which it offers tastings of its beers -- capping it at six, six-ounce samples per customer per day.
The brewery does not have a kitchen or any intent to begin selling food, she said, but applying the food exemption citywide would allow Mayhew Junction to begin selling pints, something that could particularly help the business bolster its bottom line when the COVID-19 pandemic passes.
"It's not like we're going to become a huge bar over there," Mohammahi-Aragh said, referring to the 10-percent limit for on-premises consumption.
Mohammahi-Aragh also noted small craft breweries providing to distributors will not likely locate to the Leisure and Entertainment District because it doesn't offer enough space for 18-wheelers to maneuver when picking up product.
"If we grow, we'd be looking at going to the industrial park," she said.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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