On a Friday night, it’s not uncommon to see a crowd hanging out in the front window of the Asheville Yacht Club. Sometimes there’s a small line of out-of-towners waiting to get into the private club, signing up for new memberships and shouting to the bouncer or to one another above the blistering sounds of the Deaftones or Slayer.
Over the years, the garishly decorated tiki-themed downtown bar has become a beloved dive hangout for Asheville’s service industry. The Yacht Club sees its fair share of tourists as well, but more often than not, it tends to be men and women in dirty chef’s coats who belly up to the bar, usually around midnight, pounding boilermakers and handfuls of tater tots served here by the pitcher.
There are a lot of things to see in a place like this, particularly around midnight. But no matter what you order — whether it’s a burger, totchos or a round of tequila for the crew — one thing you won’t see here or at any other private club in North Carolina is a health score..
No inspection required
In October 2013, Gov. Pat McCrory, with support from Sen. Phil Berger and then-House Speaker Thom Tillis, signed House Bill 74, known as the Regulatory Reform Act, into law. The wide-ranging bill mandated sweeping reforms, loosening regulation on everything from proximity of landfills to wildlife preserves to the transportation of venomous snakes to groundwater contamination. But amid the furor brought forth by the environmental community at the time of the bill’s passing, a small section of the law seems to have slipped by without much notice. That is, until people started noticing health scores disappearing from neighborhood bar and restaurant walls.
“If an establishment has a mixed-beverage private club permit from the [North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control] Board, they are exempt from our rules and therefore are not required to be inspected,” says Jessica Silver, the environmental health director at the Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services. “This law passed a couple of years ago.”
Xpress reached out to both McCrory’s and Berger’s offices but received no response.
“I’ve seen fire marshals, but never health inspectors,” says Crystal Pruett, the head chef and kitchen manager at the Yacht Club. “My main concern is food safety. If there is no inspection and grade, [the law] should at least require a ServeSafe for the kitchen staff.”
ServSafe certification is common in commercial kitchens, demonstrating that employees have been trained in basic kitchen safety. State law requires that every commercial kitchen have at least one ServSafe-certified employee on staff. But HB 74 eliminated that requirement for club kitchens.
The law essentially altered the state’s definition of a private club to align with Alcoholic Beverage Control’s description. Or as the UNC School of Government said in its assessment of the alteration: “Under prior law, a private club was defined solely as a nonprofit organization that maintains selective members, is operated by the membership, and does not provide food or lodging to anyone other than a member or a member’s guest. Section 7 retains this definition, but adds ‘an organization that … meets the definition of a private club set forth in G.S. 18B-1000(5)’. … The effect of this redefinition is to exempt bars that prepare and serve food from the food sanitation laws, so long as they qualify as private clubs under the ABC laws.”
Whereas the previous definition of a private club pertained mainly to country clubs and racquet clubs, HB 74 merged that definition with G.S. 18B-1000(5), which establishes a private club as a permitted location to serve mixed drinks and liquor without having to meet the 30 percent food sales quota required under the state’s ABC laws. The argument goes that since patrons are either members or guests of a private club, the club bears any liability as it is not open to the general public. This new definition opens the door for clubs to do such things as sell burgers and hot dogs from patio grills or even offer full menus under the radar.
One major kink in that reasoning is that back when private club membership requirements were established, there was also a state law mandating a waiting period of three days before a new member could enter a club. But this made things difficult for tourists and visitors to Asheville. So as tourist traffic continued to grow along with the number of private clubs functioning as pubs and bars, that waiting period was scrapped, allowing out-of-towners to acquire same-day membership for as little as $1 or, in some cases, free.
“There’s no difference between us and any other restaurant,” says Pruett, standing in front of the stove, dusting a pan of macaroni with grated cheese. A nearly 20-year veteran of the service industry, she has spent time in the kitchens of The Southern, Lexington Avenue Brewery, Black Rose and Moe’s Original BBQ and had a 12-year career at Waffle House.
“It’s a small kitchen here, and we work in small batches, so it’s not hard to keep an area clean,” she continues. “But if anything happens, it falls on us. It falls on the owners, and there really aren’t any safeguards at all.” When asked if this is the first kitchen she’s worked that doesn’t receive health inspections, she quickly responds, “Yes, the first ever. To me it’s just absolutely bizarre.”
Her kitchen is spotless. In fact, as she speaks, her face reflects in the shiny metal splash guard behind the deep fryers. “I’ve seen some awful stuff in restaurants before,” she says. “A lot of people really don’t care. For me, I’m the boss, this is my kitchen, and I have standards for myself but that doesn’t work for everyone. I require a ServSafe certification in my kitchen. To know cooking temps and holding times is so important.”
Pruett has only one employee, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and she trusts her to maintain the same high standards in the kitchen. But she notes that not all chefs play by those rules. “I had a head chef … that would tell us to change dates on products, often,” she says. “I was told to just rinse off rancid chicken to serve because it was too expensive to just throw away. I refused. That’s why I quit.”
West Asheville’s DeSoto Lounge is another private club that is also known for its food. The late-night hangout spot offers a menu of snacks, sandwiches and salads to complement its beverage offerings. Co-owner Lisa Gambrell says that, like the Asheville Yacht Club, the DeSoto takes food safety and cleanliness very seriously, but she has issues with state laws regarding private clubs.
“We clean our place the same as when we were regularly inspected, so it’s not a big deal to us,” she says. “However, since you ask, North Carolina’s ABC laws are outdated. According to the [North Carolina] liquor laws, there are no bars in [the state], only restaurants and private clubs. And, as you and I know, that’s not true.”
In addition to the Yacht Club and the DeSoto, there are just under a dozen private clubs in Asheville with fully functioning kitchens. But other cities are affected more drastically by HB 74. According to WSOC-TV, Charlotte has nearly 150 private clubs serving food that have not seen a health inspector since the law was passed in 2013.
“I would not be alarmed or worried in any way if we did have inspections,” says Pruett. “But there’s also not really a way to shut down any place that really needs it, and that’s the most concerning part for me.”