Drinks To-Go Here To Stay

Several states are looking to make alcohol to-go permanent.

Drinks to-go (Los Angeles’ Rappahannock Oyster Bar premade cocktails pictured) have helped sustain the on-premise during Covid-19.
Drinks to-go (Los Angeles’ Rappahannock Oyster Bar premade cocktails pictured) have helped sustain the on-premise during Covid-19.

As restaurants and bars continue to look for inventive ways to generate revenue during the Covid-19 pandemic and its subsequent shutdowns, food takeout and delivery have become primary components of the on-premise strategy. Beverage alcohol to-go has emerged as part of that strategy for many states, and now legislatures are working to make takeaway drinks a permanent option. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, more than 30 states and Washington, D.C. have approved such measures on a temporary basis, and a handful have made it permanent.

Michigan was one of the first states to allow alcohol to-go; the state’s House and Senate both approved the measure by a wide margin. The legislation allows to-go sales for spirits through December 2025, approving drinks sold in sealed containers. At press time, Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant Association, estimated that three out of five on-premise accounts in Michigan were making plans to offer alcohol to-go.

“We were able to secure a five-year sunset on the existing alcohol to-go law,” Winslow said. “Consumers are excited about this opportunity and now we’ll have ample time for this initiative to prove itself. We anticipate sizable growth in this space over the next year. I expect alcohol to-go will eventually become fully ingrained in the new restaurant experience, which will increasingly include carry-out and delivery options.”

Restaurateurs in Washington, D.C. are very much on board with alcohol to-go legislation. Andrew Kline, general counsel for the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, says more than 800 on-premise venues in the nation’s capital have registered for to-go drinks sales, making the district one of the busiest in this arena in the U.S. Kline adds that being able to offer takeaway cocktails was a boon to many venues during the economic struggles of Covid-19 lockdown measures. Legislation to make alcohol to-go permanent in Washington, D.C. was on the district council budget in July; it passed its initial reading and was awaiting formal approval at press time.

“Consumer response to cocktails, beer, and wine to-go has been strong in Washington, D.C.,” Kline says. “Delivery and carryout of alcohol provided at least some revenue during the complete closure period and allowed some establishments to retain more employees than they otherwise would have. The restaurant association supports permanency for this.”

In Ohio, alcohol to-go legislation has passed through the House and was awaiting a hearing in the Senate at press time. During its lockdown period, the state allowed drinks to-go—with a two-drink maximum—but the new law would establish permanency and eliminate a quantity limit for to-go sales. Homa Moheimani, manager of media and communications for the Ohio Restaurant Association, says that the measure would be beneficial for catering, adding that the response for to-go drinks has been largely positive.

“While it can never make up for what restaurants and bars lost, any opportunity to make sales and provide opportunities for guests is nice, especially with all the challenges they’ve faced,” Moheimani says. “This is supported by owners and operators across the state, and consumers as well. Down the road, pandemic or not, this will be helpful and a great option to boost the economy and help businesses get back on their feet.”

Of the more than 30 states that passed temporary alcohol to-go legislation during the pandemic, many are now looking to extend or formalize their measures. In Iowa, legislation for permanent alcohol to-go sales was approved in July, while Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas were all working on theirs. Florida was one of the states hardest hit by Covid-19 this summer, and the governor passed an executive order in March allowing drinks to-go during that time. The state legislature doesn’t return until March 2021, so formal long-term approval is still several months off.

“Restaurants and food service establishments definitely want this to be permanent,” says Richard Turner, senior vice president of legal and legislative affairs for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. “The to-go option has been warmly received by consumers and it’s been a lifeline for restaurants. It saved business and kept people employed. I believe it’s here to stay.”