Governor Kathy Hochul’s push to make to-go alcohol a permanent staple in New York still has a lot of unanswered questions; the main one being whether the law will even pass. But even with an unsure future, bars are preparing for the ability to sell take out alcohol full time.
Take-out alcohol quickly gained popularity during the pandemic after former Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an emergency bill as a way of helping keep bars and restaurants open. Last year legislation was introduced to make it permanent, but the bill was shut down. Opposition came from liquor stores who claimed they were losing profits. The New York State Liquor Association claimed that the temporary order led to an over saturation of the wine and liquor market as well as numerous health violations.
Now that the legislation is being reintroduced with the full support of Hochul, it is unclear if it will pass or be shut down yet again. Her office responded to a request for comment by saying “Governor Hochul understands the hospitality industry was and is one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. She will continue to work with the Legislature and the alcoholic beverage industry to craft a law to help get our businesses get back on their feet and thrive in their communities.”
While the new bill is aimed at helping bars, bar owners aren’t enthused. For starters, there are a mix of thoughts on whether or not the new bill will pass. “It does sound a little bit like pissing in the wind,” says Ken Hart of Schilling Bar & Restaurant. “I will say I don’t have that much faith in the New York City government right now.”
Meanwhile, Frank Gleeson, who runs White Horse Tavern in the Financial District says, “There seems to be kind of a positive attitude about it amongst the current government, so I suspect it will be passed. But who knows?”
“Not Really Enough”
While the original order allowed bars to keep doors open during quarantine, they aren’t making enough money to make it a worthy addition to their permanent business plan.
“When you have nearly $30,000 in rent, like our Chelsea location, you need people coming in sitting down, averaging $50-60 a check,” says Brendan Clinkscales, the owner of The Copper Still. When Cuomo announced the original order Clinkscales was “selling beers and cans at the same price as liquor stores, but that’s not enough to really help me.”
Hart shared a similar sentiment about lack of profits. “Unfortunately, it’s not going to drive too much revenue,” he says. “But it should help at least another one or two percent on top for normal weekly income.” Hart is hopeful that in the long run they can increase that to 5-10%.
Along with the lack on increased revenue, bar owners are worried that they will end up spending more money. Clinkscales is especially concerned about the potential increase in insurance costs. “I bet you next year one of my questions when I fill out my insurance application is now going to be ‘Do you do alcohol to-go?’” he says. Clinkscales thinks the insurance companies response will be to raise premiums. “Am I making $3,000 in to-go beverages” to make up for the costs, he asks.
Then there is the issue of liability. While alcohol to-go may be on its way to legality, open containers are not. When people inevitably start drinking on the streets, it is unclear who will be liable. Clinkscales wonders “If that person is caught drinking that cocktail that’s more than likely going to have your logo on it,” who will be held responsible — potentially bars.
With the potential for people illegally drinking on the streets, bars will probably need to find ways of securely packaging to-go drinks. During the pandemic drinks were not given out in air tight containers, instead being offered in plastic or coffee cups, but Clinkscales worries that may change. “If I want to make to-go cocktails now I have to go about sealing all these bottles in a way that they’re not going to crack when they’re opened,” he says. “It’s a little tricky.”
Despite potential concerns, bar owners are still prepping for the future potential of permanent take out alcohol. “We are working on a program on our site to do more of like a bespoke cocktail tasting,” says Hart, “like a monthly program.” Curated to-go boxes seem to be a theme for bars.
Clinkscales talked about the potential of working with whisky distilleries to design cocktail boxes that people can make at home. “I think the best way to do it for us and our business model is that — it’s a 375 milliliter bottle, it’s already stirred down, and all you have to do is chill it quickly, or put it in the fridge,” he says. “Maybe we charge you $24 for something that would be $30.” Clinkscales plan is still in its early stages and, of course, dependent on this new bill passing.
Everything is still up in the air, and will remain so until the new legislation passes (or fails). While some people maintain some level of hope — Frank Gleeson from White Horse says, “Anything helps in an environment like this” — the current situation does not instill a sense of security for the future of bars and their income. “It’s a nice idea. I hope we make some money out of it,” says Clinkscales. “But it’s never going to be a bread and butter thing for us, it’s not going to make us survive.”
“If I want to make to-go cocktails now I have to go about sealing all these bottles in a way that they’re not going to crack when they’re opened. It’s a little tricky.” Brendan Clinkscales, owner of The Copper Still