Abby Pryor was at Board Room, a Dupont Circle bar, on a recent Sunday afternoon with her usual snacks in tow: Cheese, boiled shrimp and raw vegetables with hummus, packed from home in plastic containers.
“I scaled back today,” said Pryor, 53, who was watching a Green Bay Packers football game with friends. “Usually I also bring a sausage plate and fruit.”
The bar, which opened a little over a year ago, is among a growing number of area watering holes that allow patrons to bring — or order in — their own food.
The benefits, bar owners say, are two-fold: Customers save money on meals while the establishment cuts costs by eliminating the need for a kitchen, food service staff and groceries.
“There are so many wonderful choices in Dupont Circle that we thought, ‘Why compete with these folks? Let’s let them shine,’” said Beth Lindsay, owner of Board Room. “Plus, with the economy the way it is, people can still have a night out without spending a lot of money.”
Alcohol sales typically result in much larger profit margins than food sales do. A hamburger, for example, may be marked up 300 percent, while beer could be sold for more than 500 percent of its original cost, one bar owner said.
“It’s a win-win,” said Lindsay. “It cuts back on our expenses and also allows our customers to vary it up every time they eat here.”
Bars such as Board Room, along with Raven Grill in Mount Pleasant and Rocket Bar in Chinatown — none of which serve food — have thrived in the District, where establishments with tavern licenses are allowed to sell alcohol without any meal requirements.
But even in Virginia and parts of Maryland, where local rules mandate that a certain percentage of a bar’s revenue come from food sales, local businesses have founds ways to allow customers to bring in their own fare.
World of Beer in Arlington, which recently expanded its menu to include chicken wings, flat breads and tacos, still allows customers to bring in food from other restaurants for lunch or dinner. A nearby P.F. Chang’s also delivers food to patrons at the bar.
“Someone can say, ‘I want a salad from Sweetgreen.’ And someone else can say, ‘Well, I want salmon from next door.’” owner Evan Matz said. “This is an easy way to make all of our customers happy.”
Even so, the bar’s food sales have doubled since the restaurant expanded its menu in June, according to Matz. (Alcohol sales, though, continue to outpace food sales by a large margin, he said.)
“If a group comes in and someone says, ‘I don’t like the menu here,’ that one person could sway that entire group,” he said. “Instead, the majority of customers can order off of our menu — and the rest can grab something else.”
Rockville-based Dietl’s — which secured its liquor license in 1916, back when food sales requirements did not exist — sells cold-cut sandwiches from time to time.
But owner Tony Huniak said he has no plans to add a kitchen.
“For people who want to stay for a length of time, it’s good to have food in their stomachs,” he said, “but there’s no reason they have to buy it here.”
On Sundays, Lindsay says it is not unusual for people to bring in a slow cooker full of chili or fondue to eat while they hang out at Board Room.
Rence Delino, 27, a regular at the bar, said he once saw a group of customers carry in seven boxes of cereal and a gallon of milk.
“They were just sitting there eating bowls of cereal,” Delino said. “People really have fun with it — and it’s much cheaper than paying $12 for some greasy chicken wings.”
For Pryor, whose husband has diabetes, the arrangement offers yet another benefit: the option to bring in healthful foods such as fruit and vegetables.
“Most bar food isn’t exactly healthy,” said the Penn Quarter resident. “That’s why I keep coming here, because they let us bring our own food.”