Take-away cocktails are not a fad.
Nebraska on Wednesday jointly approved measures with 14 states and the District of Columbia to allow restaurants to sell cocktails in order to function permanently after the program’s success during the health crisis. Six other states have approved the extension of the temporary measure until at least 2022. At least 15 states are considering active bills to keep take-away cocktails longer, despite opposition from the liquor industry to the legislation.
Prior to the pandemic, states and localities largely banned bars and restaurants from selling take-away cocktails, with a few notable exceptions such as New Orleans. But when lockdowns began last year, restrictions on personal eating ravaged the restaurant industry. The take-away and delivery spinning helped offset some lost sales, but nowhere near enough. Most restaurants also lacked alcohol sales, which are generally the highest-margin products on the menu.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued temporary orders to allow bars and restaurants to sell their cocktails on the same day that he closed dining rooms across the state. Dozens of other states followed suit, fueled by lobbying from the restaurant and liquor industries. As of Wednesday, 39 states and the District of Columbia allow take-away cocktails to be sold.
“The Distilled Spirits Council got involved very early in the pandemic because we saw that it was a way of advocating our restaurant and bar partners,” said Lisa Hawkins, senior vice president of public affairs for the trade group. “We saw this as a very critical source of income at a time when they needed it most.”
The Westport Cafe in Kansas City, Missouri, was one of the restaurants that turned cocktails as a lifeline during the crisis. Before the pandemic, alcohol made up about 40% of its sales. Last summer, the French bistro invested in a freezer vending machine to make its own cocktails. Special food offers were also created that included a mimosa packet or bottle of wine to increase sales.
“It’s not why we’re still here, but it helped a lot,” said co-owner Nicolas Mermet.
The cafe plans to revive the frozen beverage machine in June when the weather gets hot. Missouri legislature recently passed a bill to make takeaway cocktails permanent, and the bill is just waiting for a signature from the governor.
“Companies may need it less, but it will still be an important proposition for them,” said Hawkins.
According to Marbet Lewis, founding partner of Spiritus Law, the pandemic has helped change the minds of lawmakers on the idea of selling take-away cocktails and the ability of restaurants to comply with alcohol laws.
“There are precedents and history that this concept is not the evil that everyone perceived before the pandemic,” Lewis said. “Before the pandemic, I felt there were major compliance concerns.”
Lewis said states are primarily adding more controls and parameters to permanently allowing take-out cocktails to deter restaurants from operating like liquor stores. Preventing underage alcohol consumption and drunk driving is a major concern of states.
The biggest opposition so far has come from trading groups representing liquor stores. For example, Robert Mellion, Managing Director and General Counsel of the Massachusetts Package Store Association, wrote in a Boston Herald column A change in alcohol laws would affect public safety and harm brick and mortar retailers. On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Senate rejected the extension of the Cocktails-to-Go program, which expires on June 15.
The vast majority of states that were allowed to drink cocktails during the pandemic plan to maintain the programs. But there are several with no active bills to support this.
“Lots of places where we see the executive order just expired on its own terms,” said Lewis. “There was probably no interest there, or the program wasn’t generating enough profits or sales in that particular area or region that the restaurant industry got a big boost.”