City Council’s COVID Concerns Leave New Business in Limbo
An entrepreneur working to bring a unique concept to downtown Tuscaloosa feels left in limbo after the city council's steps to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus have kept him from obtaining a liquor license.
Ken Cupp is the owner of Sage Juice Bar and Speakeasy, which is set to open soon in the space where Edelweiss bakery and coffee shop used to be in downtown's Temerson Square.
Cupp, a UA alumnus, announced his plans to bring the juice bar model he perfected in New York to Tuscaloosa in December. He took over the building's lease in January and began extensive renovations there with a mind to open in early April -- then the pandemic arrived.
Suddenly, the process of opening his dream business in the Druid City ground to a halt. No building inspections, no check-ins from the health department, and most vexingly, no public hearings during which the Tuscaloosa City Council grants liquor licenses.
Cupp said Friday that he's been ready to open for 10 weeks, but the council voted last week to postpone all public hearings until June 2nd at the earliest, even as the municipal government finds new ways to conduct the city's business digitally or while maintaining good social distancing.
"All I'm saying is I've done everything and my application is there ready for the city to approve -- and I still have to pay for that!" Cupp said. "I'm ready for them to say OK, I've done everything that I'm supposed to do and give me a chance to open."
Even if the council granted his liquor license tomorrow, Cupp said he would still be weeks away from opening as he stocks the bar, trains employees and more.
"It's not like they approve it and you're open the next day," Cupp said. "When they say June 2nd is the next time they'll evaluate having a public hearing, what I hear is I'm not going to be able to open until July."
Cupp moved his family from New York to Tuscaloosa to open this business and the future general manager of Sage Juice Bar & Speakeasy moved here, too. Cupp said every day he doesn't open, he has to find a way to feed his family and to pay the friend who went on a limb and moved to Alabama to help see this concept through.
Cupp said it's encouraging to see the city and the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama work together to help existing restaurants and retailers survive the pandemic, but he worries that businesses like his are looked over because they weren't able to open before the coronavirus arrived.
"I just grind, grind, grind week to week and the Tuesday night council meeting comes and when they make their decisions, they don't even consider us because there's no voice for what we're going through," he said. "That's the biggest thing for me -- there's no voice for new businesses in Tuscaloosa."
Cupp said he doesn't want to open Sage without his liquor license in hand, because the craft cocktail speakeasy is such an integral part of his business model. You can only make a first impression once, and Cupp doesn't want patrons to experience only half of his vision for the establishment.
"I know that I'm going to open with regulations anyway," Cupp said. "I'm not going to be able to have a ribbon-cutting and a grand opening and just let people flood in, I'm still going to have to be regulated. All I'm asking is for the city to give me a fighting chance."
We're all struggling to find new ways to operate during these unprecedented times, but we hope the Tuscaloosa City Council can find a way to help entrepreneurs like Cupp who want to invest and operate in the Druid City. As we move to return to normalcy, they should not be bogged down in bureaucracy and struggling to survive before their doors even open.
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