As has been underscored in sharp relief during the coronavirus crisis in Massachusetts, restaurants are a necessary and fragile part of the fabric of our lives. The work of restaurateurs to remain open for takeout and delivery following Governor Charlie Baker’s shutdown of nonessential businesses on Monday demonstrates the value of nourishment and convenience a good meal can provide for a family.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants are working with skeleton crews, and many of their workers are facing layoffs. Restaurants have had to transition into little more than take-out storefronts, and the inability to provide — and charge for — service makes it harder for them to keep their doors open. With each restaurant closure, we lose a small business and another contributor to the local economy.
While we applaud recent federal and state efforts to help pass small business loan relief and offset the pain felt by many of our employees who are simply not able to work now, we would like to recommend simple steps that could provide a small but necessary boost to restaurant viability: relax state regulations and allow restaurants to offer limited alcohol sales as part of their meal takeout and deliveries. A bill introduced this week by Baker would allow just that.
As even casual observers know, sales of beer, wine, and spirits are a large driver of restaurant revenue on a dine-in basis — between 30 and 50 percent. Alcohol sales boost check sizes and gratuities for our staff as our guests enjoy wine, beer, and cocktails. Easing regulations on takeout of the packaged beer and wine that restaurants have on hand would allow them to accrue precious incremental revenue so they can stay in business longer and recover faster as this crisis winds down.
Many restaurants cannot open without liquor licenses, but they come with a high cost that’s financed through a restaurant’s loan package. Even rent remediation — part of the suggested package of small business relief — will not help to tamp down that particular monthly expense for restaurants. What had been an asset will turn into a liability, as will the current inventory that can’t now be sold.
Liquor stores and other outlets that sell alcohol may argue that their businesses could be hurt by Baker’s bill. Yet restaurant takeout and delivery sales of packaged beer and wine lines up with what would have naturally been purchased in restaurant dining rooms during normal times. By keeping purchases small — think a six pack or a bottle of wine or two — it will offer little risk of irresponsible consumption. In fact, restaurants, with what they have at stake legally, are arguably more in the business of responsible consumption than any other licensed outlet.
Meanwhile, the convenience of allowing takeout sales is beneficial to public health as well: At a time when we’re being asked to limit trips from our homes to gather the bare necessities, it’s much better for a diner to stay home or take only one takeout trip, rather than add extra stops for libations.
The economic benefit of this kind of to-go sales also extends to helping out our friends in the craft beer business, who sell an outsized proportion of their products through on-premise accounts — about 30 percent nationally, according to a recent story on Brewbound.com, and perhaps higher here in Massachusetts which is one of the hotbeds of craft brewing. It helps keep products moving through the economy by bringing tax revenue into the state’s coffers.
But the biggest reason for relaxing this regulation is that it helps restaurants stay in business, allowing them to pay staff and re-hire after the crisis ends. We can see this even as the ground shifts to tighter lockdowns in other states — many of which, such as New Hampshire, New York, Texas, and Maryland, have chosen to allow just this particular regulatory easing and more. Let’s throw these essential businesses a small but sustaining lifeline.
Jody Adams is a James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef and Boston-area restaurateur. Jeff Klineman is the editor in chief of BevNET, a media company that covers food and beverage entrepreneurialism.
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