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In Some States, the Boon of To-Go Cocktails Is Going, Going, Gone

With very little warning, New York and Pennsylvania have rolled back mandates that made it possible for restaurants and bars to survive the pandemic. The businesses aren’t ready.

A shelf in a cafe displays many bottles of wine against a bright background wall.
The expansive collection of wines at Gertie, all sold by the bottle until very recently.

At the height of the pandemic, struggling restaurants were hanging on by a boozy lifeline: Though they were largely unable to serve patrons or do the kind of business that allows a restaurant to thrive, temporary takeout alcohol mandates across states at least provided a bit of relief. Sure, a bar or restaurant might not have been able to pack in patrons like they used to, but at least they could serve cocktails out of makeshift to-go windows, or convert spaces into something resembling a wine store. But as city and state governments proclaim the pandemic over-ish, some of the loosened liquor laws that helped restaurants turn a profit and remain open are being reversed. For restaurateurs still clawing their way back from the losses of 2020, the change can feel too soon, and too abrupt to sell off all their inventory.

Recent rollbacks of these lenient to-go cocktail and liquor laws have taken effect in both New York and Pennsylvania, where restaurant owners have, for more than a year now, been adjusting constantly as mandates and restrictions forced them to adapt and improvise. In Pennsylvania, to-go liquor laws were rolled back on June 15 without notice, following the Republican-controlled state House and Senate’s move to limit Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s power in times of emergency. At a press conference on Wednesday, June 23, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the state of emergency which had allowed restaurants to sell alcohol to-go was over and that the practice would end the following day. “The emergency is over,” Cuomo said in that conference. In both states, restaurateurs are adjusting as best they can to government regulations that don’t take into account — or simply don’t care — how precarious it is to run a restaurant on the tail end of a pandemic.

Before the pandemic, patrons practically sat on top of each other at Shaka Shaka, a studio-sized Brooklyn tiki bar. When restrictions were put on indoor dining and drinking in New York, owner Garrett Mukai took advantage of the city’s newly implemented to-go liquor law, which allowed him to sell containers of pina colada, and bike through the neighborhood delivering jugs of mai tai. For Mukai, the abrupt end of to-go liquor in New York is an economic blow, but even more than that is the impact it will have on his relationship with regulars. “We have developed relationships with wonderful neighbors who I know are taking their to-go drinks home to enjoy safely with their family,” Mukai told Eater in an email. “While I’m sure I’ll still get to wave hello to them as they pass by the bar on their way home from work, they will likely no longer be regular customers of ours.” Mukai says that the financial losses won’t be enormous but, “as a very small business, it adds up.”

Shaka Shaka used to-go cocktails as a means to find some of that community during a time of isolation, but never transformed into a liquor and wine store like some bars and restaurants. Owners who invested in refurbishing their spaces and stocking up on wine and liquor are facing some serious challenges as mandates are rolled back; Eater NY reports that some restaurants are now stuck with as much as $15,000 of stockpiled alcohol. Some restaurateurs estimated that the retail businesses they’d invested time and money to build out were still accounting for 10 to 30 percent of their restaurant’s total sales, even as indoor dining makes its return.

When Gertie, a modern Jewish deli in New York’s Williamsburg neighborhood, resumed indoor dining during Memorial Day weekend, some patrons thought the dining room was still shut off. That’s because Nate Adler, the restaurant’s owner, had erected such an impressive wall of wine and liquor bottles that the view of the space was obscured from the front register. With both indoor and outdoor dining back in play at the expansive restaurant, Adler doesn’t rely on to-go liquor sales to keep his business afloat. Nevertheless, the 24-hour notice he was given of the reversed policy is a big blow, and feels like an insult to the time he put into adapting his business. “Last month, we sold 100 bottles to-go,” says Adler. “Roughly $3,500 [in wine], and spirits were another $700, and then there’s to-go cocktails. It’s a 24-hour notice after 16 months… It’s not understanding or consulting the restaurant business at all.” In a recent interview, Adler told Eater NY that he had “close to $2,000 worth of inventory coming today, that I’m going to either need to refuse or figure out another way to sell.”

Instead of working with state and local governments throughout the pandemic, restaurants have too often had to operate in spite of them. Restaurant owners, for the most part, were not optimistic that loosened liquor laws would stretch on forever. But with a pandemic still affecting business, and the taste of seemingly endless start-and-stop mandates still bitter in their mouths, this latest policy change in both New York and Pennsylvania is unpleasantly familiar.

Before the pandemic, Hart’s, Cervos, and The Fly were three of New York’s buzziest and most reliably unscorable tables. At the onset of the pandemic, all three restaurants were transformed into markets and wine shops. Though Cervos and The Fly transitioned back to serving dine-in customers, Hart’s remained a market and wine shop for the entirety of the pandemic — until now. Nialls Fallon, one of the restaurant group’s founders, suspected to-go liquor laws wouldn’t last forever in New York, but he’d hoped there would be more than a day’s notice to adjust. “As a small business in the pandemic, we have consistently had to think of ways to handle things better and more proactively than the guidance or regulations being issued from government leadership, at all levels, from the city to the federal,” he told Eater in an email. “It’s unfortunate that at this stage in the pandemic, leadership is issuing and changing rules with 24 hours notice.”

In Pennsylvania, the restaurateur Nicholas Elmi was deeply frustrated when liquor laws were rolled back without notice. Elmi, the chef-partner of Restaurant Laurel and In the Valley in Philadelphia, and Lark and The Landing in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, voiced his displeasure on Instagram after the reversal. “The state of Pennsylvania and the city [of] Philadelphia specifically has made the past year so unbelievably difficult to survive and it’s because of the people we elect to represent us,” he wrote in an Instagram caption on June 17. “The communication has been terrible. There has been no empathy from the top, down. This is a biased power play that doesn’t take into consideration any ramifications and I’m embarrassed for our city.”

Elmi noted to Eater that he generally avoids making politically charged statements on social media, but didn’t feel like he could stay quiet as Pennsylvania restaurants were forced into a corner. In addition to the limits on to-go liquor, Pennsylvania restaurants that didn’t have permits for their outdoor dining spaces before the pandemic are no longer allowed to sell alcohol in the outdoor dining structures that some spent thousands of dollars building. To do so now that the state of emergency is over (at least officially), they’ll have to apply for new permits. “We all went through the process to get permitted to build outdoor dining facilities and spent various amounts of money over the past year to keep our neighborhoods lively,” Elmi told Eater. “Then without warning we are told that we can continue using our venues, we’re just not able to sell beer, wine and cocktails in those structures, which will essentially cut revenues in half depending on the business model.” This would be a tough pill to swallow no matter the circumstances, but Elmi says the short notice feels like an added blow. “The fact that it was dropped on us as ‘starting today!’ without a wind down period or warning just shows the short sightedness of our state reps strictly voting down party lines without stopping to think to themselves ‘How is this going to affect my constituents?’... It all goes back to people getting out to vote not just every four years, but in their local elections as well.”

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board says it’s planning to smooth out the rushed process for restaurateurs scrambling to apply for permits. “We’re working on expediting temporary approval,” says Shawn Kelly, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. “…We understand it’s important, which is why we’re working to grant temporary operating authority. We’re working through this. We’re getting quite a few of these now.”

In states where to-go cocktails are broadly popular but pre-pandemic laws have been reinstated, it’s a safe bet to point to the highly effective efforts of liquor store lobbyists who want to cut back on the competition restaurants have introduced during the pandemic. This, as Eater NY’s Luke Fortney writes, “could explain how legislation supported by 78 percent of New Yorkers failed to pass.” Fortney notes that at least 15 states have made takeout alcohol sales permanent, but that in New York, lobbying efforts have stalled legislation. Advocates for liquor stores argue that allowing restaurants to continue selling bottles of liquor and to-go cocktails threatens the stores’ profitability. “The liquor store industry spent a lot of money falsely claiming that the world would come to an end if we allowed alcohol to-go by restaurants,” said Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz of New York’s District 45, in a comment to VinePair. It is still possible that New York legislators could introduce a bill reinstating to-go alcohol for restaurants. If that happens, the liquor store lobby is sure to oppose it with all its weight.

Restaurant owners in cities where takeout alcohol is once again forbidden are scrambling to figure out how to sell off their inventory, or, in some cases, are hoping they can sell the rest of their stock without officials noticing. A year and a half ago, it would have been hard to imagine that favorite restaurants would become almost unrecognizable, turned overnight into impressive wine stores and cocktail-slinging window-service operations. But this year showed that — with tireless innovation and crisis management on the part of owners and workers — a restaurant can adapt, even with the most limited resources. In an ideal world, governments would see that many restaurants still need to be markets and wine shops and casual liquor stores to generate the minimum required to stay open In the absence of that leniency, restaurants will have to adapt again with the hope that they can endure whatever comes next, even if there’s no warning.