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4 of NC's Hatteras villages vote on mixed drinks

There are no Manhattans on the northern end of Hatteras Island, a quiet refuge along North Carolina's Outer Banks.
/ Source: The Associated Press

There are no Manhattans on the northern end of Hatteras Island, a quiet refuge along North Carolina's Outer Banks.

No Grasshoppers or Hurricanes, either — not with alcohol in 'em, anyway. Restaurant owner Fred Sawyer would like to change that, and he hopes a vote later this month will make it possible for him to serve mixed drinks like his competitors in nearby villages.

"We are surrounded by people that are able to serve alcohol," says Sawyer, owner of the Froggy Dog in Avon. "I have had four tables already this summer get up and leave because I could not serve them a drink. And when you have a choice to come here or just drive five miles down the road where you can get a drink, you're going to drive."

Hatteras Island is made up of seven villages that stretch from Rodanthe to the north to the village of Hatteras in the south. Last year, the three southern villages of Hatteras, Frisco and Buxton (home of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse) approved a liquor-by-the-drink referendum. Off the island, businesses in Nags Head can serve mixed drinks, and the town of Manteo approved a referendum in June.

This leaves business owners such as Sawyer and his wife, Denise, who have owned the Froggy Dog since 1995, feeling the squeeze. Avon and three other villages that can't serve anything other than beer and wine — Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo — vote July 12 on whether to join the others.

The issue matters to many more than the approximately 4,000 people who call Hatteras Island home. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore has had more than 2.3 million visitors annually since 2007. Visitors spent more than $3 million on restaurant food or other prepared meals during the first four months of 2011, an increase of more than 15 percent over the same period last year.

The owners of the Down Under restaurant in Waves decided not to rely on voters to let them serve cocktails. Ron and Debbie LeMasters added two tennis courts to their property, and the restaurant is now classified as a sports bar that serves cocktails. She estimates the tennis courts and a new deck cost $50,000.

"We have had many times, let's say, five couples walk out because one or two people want to sit down and have a drink," she says. "We say, 'we have wine and beer. Sorry, we're not allowed to serve liquor.' And for one or two people, they go north or south."

Even if the referendum passes, Debbie LeMasters says she has no regrets about building the courts, which she may turn into a building for weddings if everyone can serve mixed drinks. "It will bring more people to these cottages and mean more business for us," she says.

The three southern villages held their own vote last year because residents there seemed more inclined to support liquor-by-the-drink, which failed in 2007 mainly because of opposition in the other four villages, where churches have led the fight in the past. But this time around, one of those leaders says he's pretty much keeping quiet.

"This time, citizens are just going to have to exercise their opinion," says Bryan Gray, minister at the Avon Worship Center since 2005 and an island native.

He still opposes the measure because he has personal convictions about alcohol consumption. And he's also concerned about its effect on island heritage. Hatteras Island has a reputation as a quiet vacation spot, attractive to families, with few restaurants open much later than 10 p.m. The island has one state-owned Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission store in Buxton that sells bottles of liquor. Until earlier this year, when the southern villages started serving cocktails, beer and wine were the only alcoholic beverages available in restaurants and bars.

"I don't see it as a contributor to the overall well-being of the island," Gray says. "Hatteras Island has been a family destination point. It's grown exponentially without liquor-by-the-drink."

But with the economy in the tank, and gas prices making a drive to somewhere as remote as Hatteras an expensive proposition, Gray says he understands why some people would see mixed drinks as one way to increase business.

Linda Meyer of Pittsburgh has vacationed in Buxton every year since 1962, the year she was born. Her parents built a house there in the mid-1970s, and she and her extended family now visit several times a year.

She last visited the island over Memorial Day weekend and drank a martini at one Buxton restaurant. But she also dined at a restaurant in Avon where her family likes the food and didn't miss not being able to drink a cocktail.

"It's nice for me as an adult to a have a mixed drink," she says. "The only fear that I have is that I go down there because it's quiet. There's not a night life."

Meyer says she doesn't care if the entire island serves mixed drinks "as long as the island can maintain that laid-back feel and it doesn't become a party town." But that, she acknowledged, is as much up to the visitors and how they behave as it is the business owners.

Another regular visitor is Charlotte Zovistoski of Florida, N.Y., who stays in Frisco for one week in April and the entire month of August. She says it never mattered to her that she could only order wine or beer but that she believes restaurants on the northern end will suffer if they can't serve mixed drinks and other restaurants can.

"I think people staying in the northern villages, if they want to go out and have a mixed drink, they will travel to the southern villages," she says. "Not everyone will. Some won't care. But I definitely think it will have an effect on business."

Sawyer says he believes the rental business will suffer by next summer if the four remaining villages can't serve mixed drinks.

"Last year, it was the entire island. Everybody was on the same playing field," he says. "And now they've got Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras can serve liquor-by-the-drink. I think the rentals next year are going to move (to the south) if we don't get it."