Starting on New Year's Day, some Texas diners began sporting a totally new kind of accessory not often seen in a restaurant setting. Last June, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill into law that would allow licensed handgun owners to openly display their weapons in public. Before the new law took effect on January 1, Texas was a "concealed carry" state, which explicitly forbade the open carrying of guns in public spaces.
A crucial provision in the law allows all businesses to opt out of the open carry policy, so long as they post a sign on the door alerting patrons that the open carrying of guns is verboten. But in a state so pro-gun as Texas — nearly one million Texans hold a concealed carry license — the political waters can be choppy for restaurants who are trying to decide whether or not they will allow patrons to openly display weapons in their establishments.
Ultimately, most restaurant owners in Texas are treading a fine line between entering a decidedly divisive, highly charged political discussion and maintaining the safety and flow of their establishments. In the overwhelming majority of cases, Texas's restaurateurs seem to be making their decisions not based on politics, but on practicality.
Houston barbecue trailer owner Trent Brooks made national headlines when he announced that his spot, Brooks' Place, would offer 25-percent discounts to diners who openly carried their weapons on January 1. The discount has since dropped to 10 percent, but Brooks says the new law didn't create much change at his own establishment, where firearms have long been welcome. "This is nothing new for us," Brooks says. "This discount was just our way of showing appreciation to our customers for having enough sense to want to protect their families, their businesses, and themselves should they have to. For us, it's an appreciation for the people who are carrying guns more than it is a political statement."
Before this deal went viral, Brooks had previously offered a discount to people who obtain a concealed carry license through a partnership with a local instructor. But as an occasional open-carrier himself, Brooks does respect individual businesses' right to opt out of the law. "That is their choice, and I respect that decision," he says. "I don't have a problem with businesses choosing to not allow open carry."
"For us, it’s an appreciation for the people who are carrying guns more than it is a political statement."
He does note, though, that his own business practices changed after the implementation of the open carry statute. Because his business doesn't have a liquor license, Brooks would give away free beer to diners, an entirely legal practice he recently stopped. "Once we allowed people to carry openly, I decided I didn't want them drinking two beers at Brooks' Place and getting behind the wheel of a car with a firearm," he says. "It's my way of protecting them and myself. I would hope that responsible gun owners wouldn't take their weapon into a place that is serving alcohol. Especially if that gun owner is consuming alcohol."
Even though the open-carrying of weapons is still not allowed in bars and other establishments that make 51 percent of their revenue from alcohol sales, restaurants on the opposite side of the equation are left with a difficult question to answer. Most restaurateurs in Texas are decidedly skeptical of allowing patrons to openly carry firearms in their establishments, perhaps due in some part to the 2014 protests staged by open carry activists in front of a Fort Worth Jack In The Box, where terrified employees hid from protesters in walk-in freezers.
Ever-opinionated Dallas chef John Tesar says his restaurants will not allow open carry. "Alcohol and guns are a very dangerous combination," Tesar says. "Why would you need to carry a gun in a nice restaurant where families and happy people are dining unless you're freaking paranoid? Given the amount of gun violence in this country, the last thing we need is more drunks carrying guns." At present, more than 50 Dallas restaurants have announced that they too will opt out of open carry, including hotspots like Matt McCallister's FT33 and Jack Perkins's Maple & Motor and the Slow Bone.
Dallas restaurateur Bradley Anderson, who owns Rapscallion and Boulevardier in addition to practicing law full-time, has opted out of open carry for his establishments, citing safety concerns. "Our primary reason for opting out of open carry is very simple," Anderson says. "At both Boulevardier and Rapscallion, it is our hope that our guests and staff feel secure. The idea of allowing exposed firearms runs contrary to said hope." He isn't, however, worried about angry protesters showing up on the sidewalks of his restaurants. "If we do get any protesters, I will offer them free Boulevardier and Rapscallion t-shirts to wear while protesting," says Anderson. "We are just a few of many businesses across the state who have chosen to opt out."
As an attorney, Anderson also raises questions about whether or not restaurants could find themselves responsible for any accidents or mishaps that occur as a result of their decision to allow patrons to carry openly. "Serving someone alcohol while they are wearing their six shooter just seems a little too 'wild west' for me," Anderson says. "Serving alcoholic beverages to a customer with an exposed firearm may bring up some interesting legal discussions down the road if an incident were to occur."
"Serving someone alcohol while they’re wearing their six shooter just seems a little too ‘wild west’ for me."
But according to Joseph Page, Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University Law Center, that apprehension may be misplaced. "The problem is that in order for a court to hold a restaurant liable in a personal injury or torts suit, the court would have to find that the restaurant had some duty to say 'no' to the practice — that anyone who said 'yes' is acting unreasonably," Page says. "That directly conflicts with the expression of public policy behind the statute. The legislature has said that it is reasonable to go either way, and that they'll leave it up to the restaurant owner."
That is, of course, unless the restaurant has created some sort of "peculiar circumstance" that would result in a measurable risk of harm if patrons are allowed to openly carry their weapons. In July of last year, the widow of a biker murdered in a gang melee at a Waco, Texas Twin Peaks sued the restaurant for gross negligence following the brawl, which left nine people dead and resulted in nearly 200 arrests.
The suit alleges that Twin Peaks allowed biker gangs to gather outside of the Waco restaurant, despite warnings from police that tensions between gangs were rising. "The Waco case is a perfect example. You know you're getting this kind of clientele and it's a place where everybody should check their guns at the door," Page says. "Given the climate in the country — and especially in Texas where the lege passed this statute — you really would have to have an extreme case to have any chance of a court not dismissing the case."
In Houston, Blacksmith Coffee Bar and Greenway Coffee owner David Buehrer offers an entirely different reason for opting out of open-carry — quality of service. Buehrer was the first Houston business owner to display the "30.07" sign that prohibits gun owners from carrying in a private business. "We put the sign up January 1st at 7 a.m.," he said.
In order for his bustling coffee concepts to allow patrons to carry a handgun, staff would be forced to interrupt their established workflow and ask everyone with a gun to show their concealed carry license, which, in his view, would seriously impact the quality of service. "We already understand our workflow and how it affects things," he says. "If you have 300 customers a day and you have to take an extra 90 seconds with one or two customers, it affects everyone."
"It’s just easier for us to maintain our level of service if no one comes in with a gun that we can see."
As such, the decision to opt-out of open carry was strictly business for Buehrer. "The thing that I am 100 percent most interested in is the service we provide our customers. If you look at that as the framework and heart of our business, there's no other decision to make," he says. "From a business perspective, I can't offer the same level of service and hospitality If I have to ask every person to show me their license to carry."
At the same time, Buehrer doesn't want to alienate the thousands of gun owners living in Houston. "Responsible gun owners are good people, kind of like crazy cat people," he says. "I don't agree with them, but I want them to feel like I respect them as customers. It's just easier for us to maintain our level of service if no one comes in with a gun that we can see."