UPDATE: Washington just greenlit to-go and delivery premixed cocktails!
Washington restaurants and bars have been lobbying to the Liquor and Cannabis Board to allow them to sell to-go and delivery cocktails.
So far, that development hasn't materialized. It's been worrisome for an industry that, in pre-pandemic times, lived on the margins and relies on alcohol for around 20 to 30 percent of sales.
"Everyone I know in the service industry is totally fucked," Rian Greer, the owner of Rumors & The Backdoor, a cocktail bar and nightclub in Bellingham told The Stranger.
Under new rule relaxations that came at the end of March, the LCB announced that beer, wine, and spirit restaurant licensees (the majority of restaurants and bars) could sell sealed beer, wine, and hard alcohol to-go. No pre-mixed cocktail sales were allowed. That left establishments with the option of selling mini-TSA-approved bottles of liquor with cocktail mix or entire handles of liquor with cocktail mix, stuff that customers can already get far cheaper at liquor stores. These sales are only legal with the sale of food.
Greer says he's particularly fucked. He has a nightclub license—the most expensive license since "the LCB thinks it's evil to sell alcohol," Greer said. He has no kitchen or menu which means he can't provide the food that would be mandatory with to-go alcohol sales if he were allowed to sell anything right now ("I’m certainly not going to name names but I've seen multiple places selling a 10 cent chicken nugget and selling booze," Greer said). The decision not to have a restaurant license seems now, in retrospect, a little like "kicking myself in the dick," Greer said since he hasn't been able to earn a dime since March 16.
Still, despite his opinions that the LCB is stuck in the Prohibition era, Greer was "absolutely floored with the LCB's flexibility" and its work to relax some rules. But it doesn't help nightclubs. He said he didn't know if he would even be able to stay open if he could sell to-go cocktails but he'd "like the option to run the numbers."
Things aren't hunky-dory for the places that can sell cocktail kits and beer and wine, though.
According to a recent Seattle Times story, Lady Jaye co-owner Evan Carter "would make 30 percent more on cocktails if his bar could do mixed drinks to-go instead of cocktail kits." His kits, which include entire liter bottles of liquor, "require more labor for little if any profit, since bars have to invest in massive amounts of bottles and other packaging."
Rob Knode, a Bellingham-based food and drink industry insurer, doesn't think that strategy will keep businesses' doors open for very long.
"There are a lot of people who are teetotalers who don’t want to buy a pint of tequila," Knode said. "That's 12 shots. I think what the restaurants are wanting to do is use their full license just like taverns." Breweries, considered taverns, are allowed to fill growlers and crowlers to-go. "Why can’t we make it so you can sell 1 gin and tonic?"
That's what other states and jurisdictions have been doing.
Across the country, state liquor boards have rolled back restrictions on liquor sales in response to COVID-19. And not "rolled back" like the Washington LCB rolled back restrictions at the start of the pandemic. In particular, selling to-go and delivery hard alcohol and cocktails was allowed (for now) in places like New Hampshire, Maryland, Nebraska, Illinois, Arizona, Colorado, California, Texas, D.C, and Atlanta, according to Eater.
"If a restaurant is doing delivery or curbside pick up it’s rare that they’re making anywhere close to what they were making," Knode said. "If they were able to sell alcohol or drinks it would be another stream of revenue."
While New Yorkers are sipping on to-go Moscow mules and D.C. yuppies snag their Bloody Marys (which are accounting for 20 percent of sales on days like Saturdays for brunch spots!), the Seattle food and drink scene is begging for a change.
We need to be able to sell cocktails to-go. They’re bottled and sealed (not by the manufacturer)
Please follow the lead of NY, CA and DC and help us! @MayorJenny @GovInslee @WSLCB https://t.co/h0Vy1N1l3k
— canon (@CanonSeattle) March 25, 2020
A letter from members of the Washington Hospitality Association signed by restaurants and bars from across the state and sent to the LCB states that "cocktails to-go are a necessity for the financial survival of small bars and restaurants during this crisis."
It goes on:
For many “spirit, beer, wine, restaurant” license holders, this is the only margin that truly generates an actual profit. Cocktails provide a valuable revenue source in the form of high profit repeated in small transactions allowing bars and restaurants to capitalize on the sale of spirits. Selling liquor by the bottle in a channel-pricing state means restaurants and bars cannot compete with grocery store pricing.
As a letter from the Tacoma's City Council states that "many businesses are sitting on tens of thousands of pre‐purchased materials for mixed drinks that represent hundreds of thousands in potential profits during normal business operations." The Spokane City Council sent a similar letter. The Seattle City Council did not return a request for comment about whether they had a horse in the to-go cocktail race.
This is one way to make sure that downtowns don't turn into ghost towns, Knode said.
But, action may be coming soon. The LCB informed The Stranger that they will be "issuing guidance on pre-mixed cocktails" soon.