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Bar Rescue: Pandemic Edition

September 15, 2020, 11:00 PM UTC
Bar Rescue-To Go Drinks and Cocktails
People buy to-go drinks from Honky Tonk Central on Lower Broadway in Nashville, Tenn., Friday, Aug. 7, 2020.Broadway 080720 An 002 Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean via Imagn Content Services, LLC Source: USA TODAY NETWORK
Andrew Nelles—The Tennessean/Imagn Content Services/USA Today Network/Reuters

The first public building in America was a church. The second was a pub.

Bars and restaurants are ingrained in our national culture and history. In many cases, the local pub or eatery is still truly a public house, a pillar of the community.

Sadly, thanks to COVID-19’s social distancing measures, thousands of bars and restaurants are permanently closing their doors. After 147 years, the Paris Cafe, one of the oldest bars in New York City, has poured its final cocktail.

But there’s an easy way to lift the industry’s spirits: Legalize cocktails-to-go. In light of the pandemic, several states across the country now temporarily allow patrons to carry out cocktails to enjoy at home. But only Iowa has permanently legalized the practice. It’s up to lawmakers to implement Iowa’s new measure on a national scale. Clearly, it’s a powerful way to help rescue restaurants and bars.

While the entire hospitality industry is suffering, bars have been hit particularly hard. They make roughly 70% of their revenue in about 16 hours a week. Think: Friday and Saturday night and Sunday football. But the very atmosphere that defines these 16 hours—large, energetic crowds of strangers in close contact—now sounds like a death sentence. And bars can’t expect their Friday night crowd to suddenly show up Wednesday afternoon.

Even in socially distanced restaurants, bar seats are closed off and standing in the bar area is strictly prohibited.

The situation is dire. Without a major shift, I expect 40–50% of America’s bars never to recover from COVID-19.

Cocktails-to-go can help these businesses hang on.

As the weather gets colder and folks continue to social distance, moving the bar experience to the American home could help save the industry. People still want to enjoy Moscow mules and dry martinis; but they want to do so safely in the comfort of their own homes. Zoom happy hours and small dinner parties are the pandemic’s new social scenes and cocktails should be part of this home experience.

And since cocktails garner nearly twice the profit that food does, to-go cocktails help support restaurants as well.

Aren’t temporary cocktails-to-go enough? Absolutely not. Many bars are already three to four months behind on rent and they won’t be able to make the money back anytime soon. The crowded bar scene is likely one of the last things that will go “back to normal” after the pandemic. And I could see the affluent, older bar crowd opting out of the bar scene for years.

Additionally, offering cocktails-to-go is a serious investment. Bars and restaurants need to invest in new cups, lids, branding, training, and marketing. They need to change their menus, websites, and social media strategies—and ultimately, they need to elicit a change in consumer behavior, which takes time.

Going through all this trouble only to be told cocktails-to-go are once again illegal simply wouldn’t be worth it.

Finally, regulators and lawmakers should trust bars and restaurants to responsibly offer cocktails-to-go. Signature cocktails are part of a restaurant or bar’s personality and flair. We’re simply asking to make our artistry and mixology portable, just like we do with food.

Bars and restaurants could keep this new offering safe by religiously checking IDs, branding to-go cups for accountability, and putting seals on cups to make sure drinks aren’t tampered with. In fact, to-go cocktails could actually increase alcohol safety by promoting home consumption.

The bar has been a cornerstone of American culture from the very beginning. George Washington himself owned one of the first distilleries in America, you can still buy whisky at his home.

Today, our bars and restaurants are in trouble. As a seasoned hospitality consultant and owner, I know COVID-19 will have terrifying, long-lasting effects on our industry. Permanently legalizing cocktails-to-go is a must.

Jon Taffer is a bar owner, consultant, and host of the television program Bar Rescue