To-go cocktails won’t be a pandemic fad.
Nebraska joined 14 states and the District of Columbia on Wednesday to approve measures to allow restaurants to sell cocktails on a permanent basis following the program’s success during the health crisis. Six other states have agreed to extend the temporary measure until at least 2022. At least 15 states are considering active bills to extend the retention of take-away cocktails, though the legislation has met some opposition from the liquor industry.
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 switch to take-away and delivery helped offset some lost sales, but not nearly enough. Most restaurants also missed out on alcohol sales, which are generally the highest margins on the menu.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a preliminary order 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 to-go 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 trading group. “We saw this as a very important source of income at a time when they needed it most.”
The Westport Cafe in Kansas City, Missouri, was one of the restaurants that focused on cocktails as a lifeline during the crisis. Before the pandemic, alcohol made up around 40% of sales. Last summer, the French bistro invested in a frozen drink machine to make its own craft cocktails. Special meal plans were also created that included a mimosa packet or bottle of wine to increase sales.
“That’s not why we’re still here, but it helped a lot,” said co-owner Nicolas Mermet.
The cafe plans to revive the frozen drinks machine in June when the weather warms up. Missouri lawmakers recently passed bill to make takeaway cocktails permanent, and the bill is just waiting for the governor’s signature.
“Companies may be less dependent on it, 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 lawmakers’ minds about the idea of selling take-away cocktails and the ability of restaurants to comply with alcohol laws.
“There is a precedent and a story that this concept is not the evil that everyone perceived before the pandemic,” said Lewis. “Before the pandemic, I felt there were major compliance concerns.”
Lewis said states are primarily adding more controls and parameters in allowing to-go cocktails on a permanent basis to prevent restaurants from functioning like liquor stores. Preventing alcohol use and drunk driving by minors is a major concern of the state.
So far, the greatest opposition has come from trading groups representing liquor stores. For example, Robert Mellion, executive director and general counsel of the Massachusetts Package Store Association, wrote in a column in the Boston Herald that a change in alcohol laws would affect public safety and harm brick and mortar retailers. On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Senate rejected an extension of the cocktail to-go program, which expires on June 15.
The vast majority of states that allowed take-away cocktails during the pandemic plan to maintain the programs. But there are several with no active bills to back it up.
“In many places where we see the executive order just expired on its own terms,” said Lewis. “It probably just wasn’t interested there, or the program didn’t generate enough profits or sales in that particular area or region for the hospitality industry to make a big leap forward.”