The culture of brunch is scant in Johnston County. There are diners with eggs and bacon and often a line at Bojangles on Sunday mornings, but few calls for bloody marys and mimosas.
Some towns in North Carolina have already enjoyed their first pre-noon Sunday cocktails in response to the signing of the state’s so-called “Brunch Bill.” But those governing Smithfield and Clayton, Johnston’s largest towns, are still waiting and watchful.
“While we have not had any request to my knowledge, I’m sure we will in the future,” Clayton Mayor Jody McLeod said. “This new law is definitely progressive and promotes businesses, and lessens the constraints while still holding the business accountable. The same will be true in Clayton.”
Nate Roby runs three locations of his Simple Twist restaurants with his wife, Colleen, and serves the only regular Sunday brunch in Johnston County. He has big expectations for the law change, which would allow restaurants to serve alcohol two hours earlier on Sundays. He thinks it could usher in a new era of dining.
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“On Sundays, especially when football is on, people want to be able to get a drink,” Roby said. “I think there’s going to be a shift in how people go out on Sundays.”
Simple Twist in the Cleveland area already opens at 10 a.m., a classic time for brunch. The Robys open the Smithfield outpost at 11 a.m., closer to midday when some of the area churches have already let out. Roby said that brunch is more of a state of mind than something attached to time, that mornings will start out with the breakfast staples one hour, move on to lunch the next and that by mid-afternoon he’s slinging omelets again. In the midst of all that, diners will sometimes ask for a Bloody Mary or beer, only to be informed of North Carolina’s legislative preference that Sunday cocktails be consumed in the p.m. hours. Then they order a water.
“There’s quite a bit of revenue we’re missing out on,” Roby said. “Most are aware of the law, and they won’t even think about ordering a drink before noon. But we get a lot of travelers passing though on the interstate who find us on TripAdvisor. They stop in and try to order from the drink menu.
“That’s a tough thing to explain to them,” Roby said. “They might opt out for a water and you lose that $6 for a drink, or lose out on two or three drinks for a free water. From a business standpoint, I think we’re going to see a significant increase.”
Beyond that, brunch options are slim in Johnston County, mostly popping up on Mother’s Day. That’s when Clayton Steakhouse, owned by town councilman Michael Grannis, serves its one brunch a year.
Howard Manning, the chef of Mannings on Main Street, said he has both Mother’s Day and Easter Sunday brunches, as well as a third brunch to be named later at some point in the year. But none of those alter his typical noon opening time. He doesn’t expect the Brunch Bill to change his operation, but understands the push for the two extra hours.
“I won’t open any earlier; I’m not going to change because of the law,” Manning said. “I don’t drink personally, but I reckon if you’re out with family and friends and want a Bloody Mary you might not want to wait 30 minutes or so. That’s one of the reasons I picked noon to open. You have those people that come in and want to order a drink and it can cause issues when you can’t provide that. It can put a bad taste in their mouths. People don’t like to hear ‘no’ when they’re out at a restaurant, no matter whose fault it is.”
Michelle Rutherford-Smith owns Bella Bistro in downtown Smithfield and said the restaurant used to run a Sunday brunch, but didn’t get the business to sustain it. It’s now closed on Sundays, like a lot of restaurants in downtown Smithfield and Clayton. With the Brunch Bill passed, Rutherford-Smith said the restaurant has put some thought into maybe bringing back brunch.
“Since the bill passed we’ve been getting five to 10 calls a day to open for Sunday brunch,” Rutherford-Smith said. “I think it’s wonderful, a long time coming.”
Johnston County sent three freshmen Republican legislators to the capital this year, and all three voted against the Brunch Bill. The county’s two veteran legislators, representing a just a fraction of Johnston residents, split their votes, with Republican Sen. Brent Jackson supporting the bill and Rep. William Brisson one of four Democrats in the House rejecting it.
The decision now lies in the hands of local elected officials. Members of the Clayton town council have suggested they’ll wait for a specific request to come in from a business owner before addressing Sunday alcohol hours. Some on the Smithfield council expect to take it up at the August meeting, more a matter of housekeeping than passion.
“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” Smithfield Councilman Emery Ashley said. “I view it as a personal choice. We already have liquor by the drink. I don’t think it’s government’s role to make decisions of when people can buy a drink.”
While the bill may trigger some action in Clayton and Smithfield, where downtowns are often looking for arguments to keep residents from driving to Raleigh, Ashley thinks this one is maybe overblown.
“It seems like the biggest deals are made out of the minor issues,” Ashley said.
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson