Yesterday, in a move that shocked an entire industry, the Liquor and Cannabis Board relaxed rules that restricted bars and restaurants from selling to-go and delivery premixed cocktails.
"I honestly still can’t believe the LCB is allowing this," Abe Fox, owner of Wooden City, a bar in Tacoma said.
That only happened because of public pressure and action from city councils in Tacoma and Spokane. One council member expects this to change the future of the industry.
"They're not overly creative," Robert Thoms, the Tacoma City Council member who spearheaded the conversations with LCB, said about the LCB. "Usually you have to reach out to them for stuff you want, not vice versa."
I asked him when those conversations first started.
"Oh gosh," he laughed, "it’s been a while." According to Thoms, he reached out to the LCB back in early March when restaurants first closed. They made some "little bitty" tweaks, Thoms said, like allowing the sale of sealed liquor in its original packaging. When I asked the LCB about this, Brian Smith, an LCB spokesperson called this an "extraordinary step."
That step, while a significant change in Washington state, wasn't enough for an industry that operates in the margins and relies on alcohol sales to stay afloat during economic prosperity. The changes allowed for the sale of sealed wine, beer, and liquor off-premises. That meant the businesses had to think of creative ways to sell essentially deconstructed cocktails. Which boiled down to either selling mini bottles or entire liters of liquor, stuffs that would be cheaper at the grocery store. It was less than ideal.
Thoms sent a letter signed by the entire Tacoma City Council on April 10. "Has it really been that long?" Thoms asked when I reminded him of the date. "I thought they were faster. I guess that means my blood pressure’s not that high, which is good."
Up until this week, they hadn't heard anything about the progress of any potential change. On Monday, Thoms said he sent the LCB a "barrage of emails." It seemed he had written off the LCB relaxing these rules, rules states across the country have changed to help restaurants and bars weather this storm. But it happened.
On Wednesday afternoon, "after considerable internal discussion and interaction with city officials and stakeholders," Smith with the LCB said, the LCB sent an email notice to its "alcohol lists" alerting them of this "temporary, restricted allowance."
Smith wanted to be clear that this announcement doesn't mean to-go and delivery premixed cocktails are legal but that the LCB " is merely advising that we will temporarily not take enforcement action against it," Smith said. "Only the legislature has the authority to legalize this on a permanent basis."
"I struggle with how much to take them to the woodshed on this," Thoms said, "at the end of the day they granted something that’s not in their DNA for wanting to do."
That's because the LCB operates in a mindset of controlling consumption, Thoms said. He thinks they shouldn't be doing that.
"It should be managing it effectively, safely, and in the interest of the consumer," Thoms said.
This rule relaxation will likely be lifted whenever Washington's stay-home order is lifted. But, Thoms would like to see it extended into the future.
"Frankly," Thoms said, "I think the way the state is run currently is not meeting what’s actually happening; there’s a demand for this. If it's done well and we trust our businesses they can do it without having any negative impact."
Fox at Wooden City has already started bottling Old Fashioneds to sell to-go. It's one of the first to-go premixed cocktail sold (legally) in the state. There have been a few anecdotal reports that establishments weren't exactly toeing the line when it came to only selling sealed liquor in its own packaging.
"It’s a great example of the right people fighting for small business through this crisis," Fox said. "It’s something that will have a huge impact on how we operate moving forward."