Selling alcohol has always been profitable, but it's also tightly regulated. You'll need a North Carolina liquor license to sell booze in that state, whether you're opening, for example, a night club in Raleigh, a convenience store in Winston-Salem or a hotel bar in Asheville. All permitting comes from the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission (ABC).
To apply for a North Carolina state permit, identify exactly what kind of permit you need: winery, bottler, restaurant retail, bar, brewery and so on. Complete and submit the application, paying a fee that can range from $100 to $1,000. You and your partners will have to pass a background check and meet local government requirements as well.
North Carolina liquor license laws divide alcohol permits into two types. If you're selling at retail, you need a retail permit. If your business involves manufacturing, importing, distributing, bottling or transporting alcoholic beverages, you need a commercial ABC permit.
In some cases, you may need more than one permit. You may also need to complete more paperwork than just a North Carolina liquor license.
- Some alcohol licenses require you to submit samples to the state for product approval.
- Suppliers of wine and beer must submit distribution agreements identifying their wholesalers.
- Distilleries, winemakers, wholesalers and importers need a federal permit.
- Your business will have to conform to any regulations your local city or county government imposes on it.
Technically, the state issues liquor permits and city and county governments issue local liquor licenses. In Durham, for example, a restaurant offering beer and wine would submit a liquor license application and $30. In casual conversation, "permit" and "license" may be used interchangeably.
The cost of your permit varies with the type of permit you need. At the time of writing, here are some of the fees:
- Selling beer or wine at retail requires a $400 North Carolina liquor license.
- The NC liquor license price for a club, restaurant, hotel or bar selling a mix of beverages is $1,000. A private club liquor license in NC costs the same.
- Mixed-beverage catering costs $200.
- A brown-bagging restaurant, one that allows patrons to bring in their own alcohol, requires a $200 or $400 permit, depending on the restaurant size.
- A wine shop or a wine tasting room has an NC liquor license cost of $100.
- If you're holding a reception and you want a special one-time permit to bring in alcohol for the guests, the fee is $400.
If you're applying for a license as a sole proprietorship, obviously you're the one whose qualifications the ABC Commission will review. If your business is a partnership, every general partner will have to submit to commission review to get your North Carolina liquor license. The same applies to corporate officers and directors and anyone who holds a quarter of the stock in the company, as well as some managers.
To establish that you, your partners or your directors are suitable to hold a North Carolina liquor license, the ABC commission looks at several factors including your reputation, your character, your criminal record and any evidence indicating you might not obey the law. The commissioners will also review the proposed location for your business and whether it's suitable for licensing:
- Does it comply with all applicable building and fire codes?
- How many businesses in the neighborhood already hold ABC permits?
- Local parking facilities and traffic conditions.
- What kind of businesses are already in the neighborhood?
- Is your proposed location within 50 feet of a church, church school or public school?
- Does it comply with local zoning?
- Is the county or city government pro or con on your North Carolina liquor license application?
- Is there any evidence operating the business at this site will hurt the neighborhood?
The ABC Commission has the sole power to decide if you and your location meet their standards. Submitting false information is grounds for rejecting your permit.
For a retail license, you complete the state application and submit it, accompanied by the appropriate NC liquor license price. You can pay by certified check, cashier's check or money order. You also submit the additional paperwork required, such as:
- Fingerprint card for everyone required to participate in the application. If you're in a partnership with two other people, for instance, all three of you have to submit fingerprints, with a processing fee of $38 per person.
- A copy of the deed, lease or rental agreement for your property, specifying that your business is the tenant or owner, and giving the beginning date and length of the agreement.
- A local government opinion form.
- A zoning and inspection compliance form, signed by the appropriate officials.
- If the law requires you to recycle containers, submit the appropriate forms.
- A detailed diagram of the premises.
Some businesses will require extra paperwork, for example, the food menu and drink prices if your business is a restaurant. If you want a private club liquor license in NC, you have to submit the membership policy, the policy on guests using the facilities plus your club charter.
Despite the name, the ABC Commission does not run North Carolina's 400+ ABC stores, which sell distilled "spiritous" liquor such as gin, whiskey and rum. These operate at the local level, run by a local board. Each local board manages all ABC stores in its jurisdiction.
Commercial ABC permits last indefinitely. Most retail permits expire on April 30 of each year, unless the holder renews them. To re-up your permit, you submit a renewal form along with a fee, typically the same as the initial NC liquor license cost. Even if you follow the ABC rules, your permit expires automatically under some circumstances:
- The ownership of the business changes. A North Carolina liquor license can't be transferred from one person or company to another.
- If the licensed business is owned by a partnership, firm or association, the permit expires if someone not on the original application acquires a 25% ownership share.
- If the business is a corporation, the permit expires if someone acquires 25% of the stock.
- Once your license becomes effective, you have six months to start the permitted activity. If, say, your business doesn't open or your restaurant never gets around to selling wine within that period, you lose your permit.
- If a corporation's original manager was one of the permit applicants, the company has to reapply if they replace the manager. The substitution application is due to the ABC Commission within 30 days after the new manager starts work.
Whatever sort of North Carolina liquor license you aspire to, you will have to abide by the state's rules for permit holders.
- You can't sell or serve alcohol to minors, and you can't allow them to drink alcohol on your premises, no matter where they bought it. If you suspect an adult is buying alcohol for minors, even their own kids, you should say no.
- You can't sell to someone who's intoxicated or allow them to drink on your property. Loud or disorderly customers have to leave your property, including the parking lot.
- You are not obligated to sell to anyone. If you're in doubt about their age or level of intoxication, you can refuse their money. The customer has no legal recourse.
- Alcohol can only be served between 7 a.m. and 2 a.m., except on Sunday when sales before noon are banned.
- There are no happy hours. If you want to offer reduced-price specials, it has to be for the whole day.
- If you sell beer and wine for on-premise consumption, you need at least two working restrooms. You also have to recycle containers.
- If you have a bar, restaurant or private club liquor license in NC, you can only sell distilled liquor if you buy it from an ABC store. Your beer or wine supply must come from a wholesaler with a North Carolina liquor license. Retail alcohol sellers have to pay on delivery: credit sales aren't allowed.
- A restaurant must serve food at all times that it's selling alcohol. Food sales must make up at least 30% of sales revenue. Hotels must make more in lodging revenue than they do from the sale of alcohol.
- You and your staff have to be stone-cold sober while you work. Anyone who wants a drink has to be off-duty and out of uniform. Becoming intoxicated on the premises is not acceptable, even then.
- Your business must display your ABC permit in a prominent, visible location.
Unlike some states, North Carolina doesn't require your wait staff and bartenders to undergo server training or get any sort of North Carolina liquor license. The exception is if you're applying for a temporary retail permit, which does require proof of trained staff. Outside of that, the state does impose some minimum server requirements:
- Staff must be 18 to serve beer and wine, 21 to sell liquor.
- A bartender cannot have had a felony conviction in the past three years.
- A person cannot serve or sell alcohol if they've had a North Carolina liquor license revoked in the past three years.
- Bartenders cannot have been convicted of an alcohol or controlled substance-offense within the past two years.
Even without a state mandate, you may require your staff to become trained and certified to ensure they comply with the laws and the ABC code of conduct. The state's Responsible Alcohol Seller/Server Program offers online and offline classes that can train your employees in key skills:
- How to avoid selling to underage or intoxicated patrons. While the state provides charts for quantifying intoxication, the real-life effects can depend on body size, age, the amount of food consumed and any other drugs in the patron's system.
- What are acceptable forms of ID for proving age?
- How do you spot fake or altered IDs?
- Hours of sale and other state laws.
Getting your staff trained is a good step, but taking things further is often a good move. You should make it clear to your staff that to protect your North Carolina liquor license you'll hold them responsible for living up to the rules.
- Have written policies for dealing with intoxicated customers and checking IDs, along with other important issues.
- Tell your employees how they're to carry out your policies: how do you want them to deal with teenage wannabe drinkers or a father who wants to buy his son a birthday beer? If there are problems staff can't handle, who should they escalate to?
- Have the employees sign a copy of your policies, confirming they've read and understood them.
- Answer any staff questions about the policies or how to apply them. Have an open-door policy for problems that come up during the workday.
- If employees refuse to serve an intoxicated customer, back them up.
The ABC Commission suggests added steps to keep customers under the legal limit:
- Provide free snacks.
- Provide nonalcoholic beverages.
- Provide customers with activities such as video games or pool that will give them something to do besides ordering another round.
- Arrange for free or cheap transportation for customers who've lost the ability to drive safely.