Wilmington entrepreneur easing pain of North Carolina’s ‘annoying’ private club law for bars and customers

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Video: BarMembership Founder Brandon Noel demonstrating that North Carolina’s ‘private club’ membership laws need not be a time-consuming pain for customers and bar owners.

WILMINGTON –– If you’ve ever been stopped at the door of your local bar and asked to fill out a membership form, you’ve experienced the state statute that has been a thorn in the side of bar owners and customers alike for 40 years.

“It’s an old law, and no one likes it, but it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere,” Brandon Noel said. “That’s why I decided to start this company. I knew there was a faster way, and a better way,”

North Carolina law requires customers to present membership cards for many alcohol-serving establishments. That's the tip of the iceberg; bars are required to keep years of records. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
North Carolina law requires customers to present membership cards for many alcohol-serving establishments. That’s the tip of the iceberg; bars are required to keep years of records. (Port City Daily photo/BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

Noel is a former Marine rocket-launcher, UNCW student and long-time Wilmingtonian. He’s 44, though he has an unbridled enthusiasm for innovation that makes him seem at home with the 20-somethings roaming the halls at TekMountain, where his new business BarMembership is located.

His company aims to turn the state’s private club law into an opportunity for bars while easing the hassle for customers.

Noel’s owned a house in Wilmington since 1998, and he has helped friends and family run a local bar – even owning it briefly – throughout the years. In that time, he has become well acquainted with North Carolina’s statute on “private clubs.”

“Bars tend only to enforce these membership laws when the ALE (Alcohol Law Enforcement) is doing raids; but that’s becoming more frequent,” Noel said. “And the authorities can ask for your records – all your records. I’ve seen establishments that have been open for 30 years, and they have boxes and boxes and boxes full of paperwork.”

The ‘private club’ law

The 1978 addition to state law affects liquor-serving establishments that make more than 50 percent of their gross receipts from alcohol (it was later amended to only affect those locations earning more than 70 percent from alcohol – you  can read the full requirements online).

BarMembership's design runs on an iPad, secured inside a locally-manufactured steel frame that holds IDs steady. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
Customers who are already members can check in almost instantly, using their ID and phone number. BarMembership’s design runs on an iPad, secured inside a locally-manufactured steel frame that holds IDs steady. (Port City Daily photo/BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

The statute, in essence, outlaws what we traditionally think of as “bars” and requires establishments serving predominantly (or only) alcohol to be “private clubs.” This means customers must fill out membership applications, including personal information and answers to at least two questions about their interests; the regulations are meant to provide justification for the private club, but have instead become a bureaucratic hassle for customers and bar owners alike.

“There’s a lot of issues here,” Noel said. “You’ve got security – boxes full of personal information that aren’t always locked away in file cabinets. You’ve got cost, someone has to file this paperwork and keep it organized, someone has to work the door and check membership ID, even for regulars who you know are 21. A lot of this was designed with small, Mom-and-Pop bars in mind – they’re the ones without the staff and the money to handle these issues.”

Bar owners and managers aren’t the only ones frustrated with the law, customers are rarely fond of it, either.

“Of course, for the customers, it’s a pain,” Noel added. “You’ve got to wait in line. You’ve got to fill these membership applications out. And you end up with a pocket full of cards, and you lose them, or forget them, or they end up disintegrating in your wallet.”

Easing the pain, and turning it into opportunity

Noel’s solution is a combination of software and hardware that helps bars process new applications and check-in existing members quickly.

Noel designed models to be used at door, on bar tops and for hand-held use. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
Noel designed models to be used at door, on bar tops and for hand-held use. (Port City Daily photo /BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

The software enables an iPad, provided by a local Wilmington-area company, to scan a driver’s license and add that information directly to a membership application, or verify someone who is already a member. It immediately updates a digital archive of members.

Noel said, “if an inspector comes in, you can show him a complete alphabetical list on the tablet. If a new member signs up, as the inspection is happening, it will show right then.”

The software does more than eliminate the need for boxes full of paper records, it also has turns those records into useful analytic data.

BarMembership’s software lets a bar see who their customers are – by age, gender or interest – and when they come in. According to Noel, it is a valuable tool when it comes  to staffing, picking live or house music and other crucial management decisions.

“There’s a ton of things you can do,” Noel said. “Whether it’s figuring out when to put another bartender on or deciding between a deejay or, say, a 70s rock band, or something like a mailing out free cover charge or ‘head of the line privilege’ coupons on their birthday – all of this data that was useless before is now accessible and useful.”

Noel demonstrating the analytic tools available to bar owners; here he shows a bar's gender dynamics. (Port City Daily photo/BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
Noel demonstrating the analytic tools available to bar owners; here he shows a bar’s gender dynamics. (Port City Daily photo/BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

The hardware side of Noel’s product fixes a problem other similar companies ran into, especially those that simply ran an app on a smartphone.

“When I was working on this idea, bars invited me to come and see their operations,” Noel said. “I would spend a night just watching the door and seeing how things worked. One of the issues with ID-scanners is you’ve got a hand-held reader, like an iPhone or iPad, and then you’ve got people who have been drinking, who are trying to hold an ID steady. It doesn’t work – it definitely doesn’t work quickly.”

Noel needed a physical mount to hold customers’ IDs steady so they could be read quickly. He wanted something manufactured locally, so he reached out to Eastern Metal Works.  The company invited Noel in, and let him use their workshop to build a steel prototype. The finished product – which can be hand-held or mounted on a bar or waist-high stand – lets a new customer sign-up for a membership quickly, in about 22 seconds.

BarMembership has helped bars in the region check in 15,000 users since early March; Noel hopes to hit 100,000 members by the end of the year.

Noel said, “the end goal was to have an affordable system that helps bars. We’d rather have them as our partners than just our customers, and I think bars are responding to that.”