A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 28, 2021

Pandemic Cocktails-To-Go Are Here To Stay

90,000 restaurants in the US closed during the pandemic. 

The key to survival, for the remainder, was often the ability to offer cocktails to go. And consumer demand has remained strong, making this an easy win for the industry, their customers and politicians. JL 

Heather Murphy reports in the New York Times:

20 states have approved measures that would keep to-go cocktails, many permanently, even as bars reopen and indoor dining resumes. At least 15 other states are considering similar bills. This represents the most dramatic change in state alcohol laws since the 1933 repeal of Prohibition. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 90,000 restaurants in the US have shut their doors. Many surviving businesses embraced to-go cocktails. Concerns about to-go cocktail include liquor stores as well as organizations fighting underage drinking. But for the most part, to-go cocktail laws have attracted bipartisan support across the country.

The longer the pandemic went, the larger the to-go margaritas people seemed to crave.

“It started off with, ‘Let me take two margaritas home with me,’” said Charles Gjerde, one of the owners of Papi’s Tacos in Baltimore. But as the months went on, patrons were more often ordering the gallon jug.

In April, one of the restaurant’s locations surpassed prepandemic sales levels, according to Mr. Gjerde, in part because of his customers’ thirst for to-go margaritas. However, as he planned for summer, Mr. Gjerde assumed that he would have to pull them from the menu, with the expiration of Covid-era rules allowing the sale of alcoholic beverages to go.

But on Tuesday, Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland signed a bill that allows restaurants to keep selling to-go cocktails for at least two more years. Maryland joins nearly 20 states that have approved measures that would keep to-go cocktails around, many permanently, even as bars reopen and indoor dining resumes. At least 15 other states are considering similar bills.

Combined, this represents the most dramatic change in state alcohol laws since the 1933 repeal of Prohibition, according to Mike Whatley, the National Restaurant Association’s vice president for state and local affairs. “This is an incredible shift,” he said, noting that in February of last year, to-go cocktails were available only in New Orleans and a handful of other entertainment districts. Now it’s possible to order one in most states.

The seismic transformation in alcohol policy began in New York.

On March 16 of last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that restaurants and bars would be temporarily restricted to takeout and delivery but that they would be permitted to sell alcohol to-go for the duration of the mandatory closures. Amid an aggressive lobbying effort by the liquor industry, dozens of other governors promptly followed suit.

“We reached out to governors, to let them know it benefits not only consumers but also restaurants that were struggling,” said Lisa Hawkins, a spokeswoman for the Distilled Spirits Council, which represents major alcohol brands such as Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam.

Not everyone has embraced the changes. Concerns about to-go cocktail sales have created unlikely allies in some states‚ including liquor stores concerned about losing business to restaurants as well as organizations dedicated to fighting underage drinking. But for the most part, to-go cocktail laws have advanced with little dissent, attracting bipartisan support in states across the country.

In June, Iowa became the first state to make the temporary order permanent. The details of the extended measures vary. Some are focused on restaurants, while others include bars and taverns. Some radically alter the sale of takeout beer and wine, while others primarily address how hard alcohol is sold. Some require customers to pick up their to-go margaritas but others permit the restaurant or third party services to deliver them. Some specify how strong the cocktails can be and whether a straw may be provided. Others do not. None change open-carry laws, meaning that while the employee handing you that frothy daiquiri may make you feel like you’re free to openly sip and walk, you’re probably not.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 90,000 restaurants in the United States have shut their doors either permanently or long-term, according to the National Restaurant Association. Many of the owners of surviving businesses embraced to-go cocktails rapidly and wholeheartedly.

Among them is Shayn Prapaisilp, the owner of Chao Baan, an upscale Thai restaurant in St. Louis. Soon after he learned that pandemic rules would prohibit indoor dining, he hired a bar manager. One of the resulting creations — the Smoky Hot Thai Boi — was a hit.

Mr. Prapaisilp estimated that to-go cocktails constituted up to 30 percent of the restaurant’s sales last summer. Like Mr. Gjerde in Maryland, he expected that the days of to-go cocktails were about to end, but the Missouri legislature passed a bill last Friday making to-go cocktail sales permanent.

“It’s huge for us,” Mr. Prapaisilp said. “Spirits and cocktails involve the least overhead and the highest profit margins.”

Among those who do not support the recent changes is Chad Newberry, the owner of 1881 Spirits in Prescott, Ariz., who joined other bar owners in a lawsuit last year to push the state to halt restaurants’ ability to sell to-go cocktails. It seemed unfair to him given that bars in Arizona have to pay more than $100,000 and go through numerous hurdles to obtain liquor licenses, while restaurant licenses are typically closer to $3,000.

“I’m not in agreement because of the price tag I paid for that bar,” he said. Arizona’s Legislature passed a bill this week allowing restaurants to sell alcohol to-go, provided they have the appropriate license.

In New York, where lawmakers are considering a bill to make to-go cocktails permanent, a rivalry has emerged between liquor stores and restaurants. Stefan Kalogridis, the president of the New York State Liquor Store Association, has said his organization supports the change, but only if restaurants are restricted from selling bottles of alcohol.

Across the border in Connecticut, where lawmakers are considering a similar bill, the state’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services has raised concerns that alcohol delivery may encourage teenagers to drink.

“Now that we’re entering this new normal, we need new measures in place to track the identity of the person purchasing the alcohol,” said Deborah Lake, a director of the Governor’s Prevention Partnership, which works on substance abuse issues in Connecticut.

Concerns are to be expected, but what’s remarkable, said Mr. Whatley of the National Restaurant Association, is how little resistance lawmakers are posing to to-go cocktails. That’s true even in states like Georgia, which has traditionally taken a conservative approach to alcohol sales, including a onetime ban on Sundays.

In March, Georgia State Representative Kasey Carpenter introduced a bill that would allow restaurants in the state to permanently sell mixed drinks to-go. “Moving forward, Georgians will eat out differently,” he said, “This bill seeks to give our industry the flexibility to address those needs.”

State representatives had two questions about the bill, which requires customers to transport the cocktail in the trunk of their car.

“How do you prevent it from spilling?” Representative Jasmine Clark asked.

“Big cup holders,” Mr. Carpenter said.

“How do I get it home on a motorcycle?” Representative Mike Wilensky wondered.

“I’d say you’d better find another vehicle to pick it up,” Mr. Carpenter replied.

The bill passed the Georgia House, 120 to 48, and on May 5, Gov. Brian Kemp signed it into law.


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