Cocktails to Go Were a Lifeline to Many During the Pandemic. Now, their Future is Uncertain.

Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Moe’s Original BBQ is known for its boozy milkshake, the Bushwacker. When dine-in service at restaurants shifted to takeout last year due to the pandemic, Moe’s locations on Alabama’s Gulf Coast were able to sell Bushwackers to go thanks to a temporary measure by the state.

“That was a pretty big deal for us,” says Mark White, owner of six Moe’s outposts in southern Alabama.

On March 24, 2020, Alabama’s regulatory ABC Board passed an amendment that bars and restaurants could sell takeaway beer, wine or spirits so long as the packages containing alcohol were sealed and cocktails weren’t pre-mixed.

White’s restaurants created Bushwacker kits containing the ice cream base and miniature bottles of rum, so customers could create them at home. They sold Margarita and Bloody Mary kits, too.

“It was awesome because one of our restaurants has a drive-through, so we were selling barbecue and booze out of the drive-through window,” says White. “We were like, ‘This is incredible.’ We’re hoping that it would last forever.”

Sadly, the decree that enabled White and other Alabaman businesses to sell takeout booze ended in January 2021. But, on October 1, a new law will take effect in the state, allowing restaurants, breweries other licensed businesses to deliver beer, wine and spirits directly to consumers.

New Yorkers are not so lucky. Last week, in a press conference, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that bars and restaurants across the state are no longer permitted to sell alcoholic beverages to go as of June 24. It was an abrupt end to a popular law enacted last March to help hospitality businesses endure pandemic shutdowns.

“This feels like a rug being pulled from under us,” Sother Teague, beverage director at Amor y Amargo bar in Manhattan, told The New York Times on June 24. He estimated 10% of his revenue the week of June 14, 2021 came from to-go cocktails.

Cocktails to go
During the pandemic, several states made it legal to sell cocktails to go / Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty

Alabama and New York are among 39 states that let restaurants and bars sell cocktails to go during the pandemic. Thus far, 16 of them, including Nebraska, Missouri and Virginia, have made permanent changes to their alcohol laws to permit bars and restaurants to sell takeaway booze. Others have pending legislation, according to the National Restaurant Association’s Mike Whatley.

“This is probably the most significant change to state alcohol regulation since Prohibition,” says Whatley, the association’s vice president for state affairs and grassroots advocacy. “We’re really seeing states move very quickly on this.”

One reason why these laws are changing? People love it. About 80% of consumers in states with temporary to-go booze supported making the change permanent, according to a National Restaurant Association poll.

The change is also a lifeline for restaurants. Whatley says nearly 90% of the restaurants permitted to sell off-premise alcohol did exactly that. In many cases, he says, this increased net sales and enabled restaurants to bring back extra staff during the pandemic.

“This is probably the most significant change to state alcohol regulation since Prohibition.” —Mike Whatley, National Restaurant Association

As restaurants across the country reopen dining rooms and increase their capacity, workers say takeaway alcohol sales have waned.

“Our carryout cocktail program isn’t a major revenue booster, but it does give us something exciting to talk about with our guests and gets people interested in some of the other things we’re doing on-site,” says Adam Bartelt, marketing director at Orchestrate Hospitality, which manages nine restaurants in central Iowa.

Should States Permanently Legalize the Carryout Sales of Alcohol for Restaurants?

Restaurants in Iowa could sell beer via takeout pre-pandemic, he says. The state added temporary to-go wine, liquor and mixed-drink sales during the pandemic and recently passed a law that makes the change permanent.

Offering booze to go is convenient for consumers, and gives restaurants a chance to get creative, Bartelt says. For example, Orchestrate’s Latin-cuisine restaurant Malo offered bottled Margaritas after hearing diners say they missed pairing cocktails with their favorite dishes.

Takeaway cocktails New York
New York abruptly altered its takeaway alcohol laws in June 2021 / Photo by Bill Tompkins/Getty Images

Whether it’s in a dining room or takeout bag, restaurants are eager to find ways to rebound from the last year.

Plus, not everyone is fully comfortable dining in just yet, says Erin Zupicich, chief marketing officer of Heirloom Hospitality Group, which owns three restaurants in Detroit.

Michigan enacted a temporary law that lets restaurants offer to-go mixed-drinks through 2025. Cocktails must be sold in designated sealed containers labeled with the location and an alcohol-consumption warning. It permits delivery in some cases, too, Zupicich says.

Prior to the pandemic, Michigan allowed takeaway sales of beer and wine.

Whether it’s in a dining room or takeout bag, restaurants are eager to find ways to rebound from the last year.

During the pandemic, Heirloom Hospitality Group created Heirloom Goods, a website combining to-go offerings from each of its restaurants: Townhouse Detroit, Townhouse Birmingham and Prime + Proper. The site also has a butcher, bottle shop, to-go cocktails and meal packages.

“We want to still give the feeling of being with us and allow people to support their favorite businesses any way they feel comfortable,” she says. “Long term, I think it’s a nice added bonus to be able to enjoy the comfort of the restaurants you love, but sometimes you want to do that at home. Adding cocktails elevates that experience.”

On Mother’s Day, for example, Heirloom offered to-go brunch packages with baked goods, salads, quiche and other items, plus fresh-squeezed juice and Champagne. Zupicich says they sold out almost immediately.

The brunch packages “helped us immensely,” she says. “It allowed us to offer more variety than simply to-go food.”

Bars and Restaurants Have a Chance to Change for the Better. Will They Take It?

Every little bit makes a difference, Bartelt adds, especially as restaurants move from a period of survival to growth.

Whatley expects takeout to continue to thrive in the next year. He believes income from to-go alcohol could boost a restaurant’s overall off-premises sales by up to 10%.

“Even post-pandemic it’s going to be significant because customers have liked this so much,” he says. “Off-premises restaurant food, be it takeout, be it delivery, is going to be more significant now than it was pre-pandemic. We want to make sure that customers are able to get their favorite alcoholic beverage as a part of that transaction.”

Published on June 28, 2021
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