Carryout wine and beer aren’t under the microscope the same way to-go cocktails are.
Alcohol has long been a double-edged sword for restaurants. On one hand, spirits, wine, and beer serve as significant revenue generators for many operators. On the other, alcohol licenses, fees, and regulations can cut into profits, making those beverages something of a loss leader. This is particularly true in so-called “blue law states” that have restrictions on when, where, and how restaurants and bars can sell certain drinks.
But in recent months, many of these laws have relaxed. Sit-down restaurants haven’t had many advantages over limited service during the pandemic, but alcohol has given full-service operators an edge—at least those who are in states and/or municipalities that have allowed for off-premises sales.
“With restaurants, bars, and tasting rooms closed to the public, there was a drastic decline in revenue for these businesses. Cocktails to-go provided a critical lifeline to these businesses and allowed many to stay afloat,” says David Wojnar, vice president of state government relations for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (discus), which represents distilled spirits producers and marketers.
Indeed the positive impact of off-premises alcohol is not in question, but rather the fate of such programs is. “The path to recovery for these businesses will last well beyond the end of the pandemic. With months of lost revenue and continued uncertainty surrounding reopening, restaurants and bars need stability in the months and years to come,” Wojnar adds.
Carryout wine and beer aren’t under the microscope the same way to-go cocktails are. While selling any kind of alcoholic beverage for off-premises consumption isn’t necessarily in restaurants’ wheelhouse, hard spirits have a certain taboo. Not only do spirits have much higher proofs, but they are also often served as mixed drinks, which are not sealed and shelf-stable like bottles, cans, and growlers. “Beer and wine have long benefited from an unfair advantage in the beverage alcohol marketplace. We are simply asking to be treated equally so consumers have choice and can enjoy their favorite beverage when and how they want,” Wojnar says.
At press time, restaurants and bars in 30 states and the District of Columbia were allowed to sell cocktails and/or bottled spirits to go, per DISCUS. In June, Iowa became the first state to make these changes permanent. Other states are moving in a similar direction, but that’s not to say they won’t meet resistance.
“It’s very difficult for a politician to stand up and say, ‘I defend alcohol.’ Right now is a fascinating moment because you can step up in support of the industry,” says Jon Taffer, bar consultant, owner of Taffer’s Tavern, and host of the television series “Bar Rescue.” He worries that if industry operators are too vocal about keeping regulations rolled back or if they focus solely on alcohol, it could hamper the cause. Instead, he thinks a packaged approach could yield more desirable results. “So I think what we do is we make this a support-the-restaurant-industry premise far more than an alcohol premise and that makes it easy for legislators to jump behind the restaurant industry,” Taffer adds.
This rallying cry is likely to curry favor on both sides of the political aisle, especially when the National Restaurant Association estimates the industry will have lost $240 billion by year-end. But to ensure buy-in remains steadfast, restaurants and bars must commit to standardized procedures and policies. This begins with proper packaging. By sealing and labeling beverages meant for off-site consumption, operators imbue to-go cocktails with the same legitimacy that bottles of wine and cans of beer have long enjoyed. Tamper-proof packaging can go a long way in allaying fears around drinking and driving or minors imbibing unbeknownst to their parents or guardians.
“I think a to-go cocktail system of mixed drinks should be in a branded container; it should have a seal on it. So if my 15 year old opens the package when it comes to the house, ... it’s understood that it’s not his Coke,” Taffer says. “There are many ways that this could be done in an extremely professional way that makes it unchallenged—or unchallengeable—by the legislators.”
Even in the uncertainty of the pandemic, restaurants have already demonstrated that they can make off-site alcohol work in a responsible and profitable way. The feat is all the more impressive for brands that span multiple states, where laws may vary.
Cameron Mitchell Restaurants (cmr) is one such group, comprising more than 20 concepts with its flagship, Ocean Prime, spanning a dozen states plus D.C. From May to July, CMR locations opened in waves with each offering a to-go cocktail program.
“Our partners in beverage have been very supportive in keeping us knowledgeable about the rules and regulations by market,” says Andrea Cornwell, director of beverage and operating partner at CMR. “I think this unfortunate situation has opened our eyes to more creative beverage sales for those who dine in the restaurants, as well as carryout. We’re excited to engage our guests at home.”
Cornwell thinks the changes made during COVID-19 will remain. Just a few months into its carryout operation, CMR is already pushing toward the next level; one of its Cap City Fine Diner locations in the greater Columbus, Ohio, area has already begun piloting a delivery program for its cocktails.
Taffer thinks, in some ways, delivery may be an easier sell for government regulators and advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (madd) since this method eliminates the risk of customers drinking in transit from restaurant to house. On the other hand, delivery does place the burden of ID check on the courier. Safeguards like this could be added to the growing list of reasons why restaurants are experimenting with their own in-house delivery operation rather than relying on third-party services.
How alcohol regulations shake out depends on many factors that haven’t yet come to pass, including the upcoming election and another potential surge in coronavirus cases. Ultimately, many in the industry think that, just like putting the genie back in the bottle, some of these changes will be difficult to undo, especially when taking the past several months into account. Throughout the crisis, restaurants have proved that they can execute under relaxed regulations.
“If you look at history, it’s very hard for the government to take away things they’ve already given us. There’s not a big history of that,” Taffer says. “So now that we’ve got it, we should claim it. We should do it well as an industry and make certain that everybody understands how important it is.”