PROVIDENCE — When Angelo’s Palace Pizza in Cumberland, Rhode Island, had to shut down indoor dining a year ago because of the coronavirus pandemic, takeout became a critical lifeline. And being able to sell alcohol along with the food, which was allowed under an emergency state order, was a big part of that.
Bill Kitsilis, one of the owners, said they were doing about $1,500 a week in to-go alcohol sales in the early days, because let’s be honest, who’s going to make a Stoli Doli at home? Are you actually going to slice the fresh pineapple when you could just have a restaurant like Angelo’s do it for you?
As the months have worn on and other options opened up, takeout booze has become a smaller part of the business. But it’s still one Kitsilis would like to see stick around.
“What’s the harm in being able to have another way to have revenue?” Kitsilis said. “Especially now.”
Restaurants right now are trying to make that a reality in Rhode Island — an effort that will have to contend with other powerful players in the liquor industry. The debate will surely repeat itself as Rhode Island’s economy reopens and as temporary measures, some of which have proved quite popular, either fall by the wayside or get extended.
Though alcohol-to-go is still allowed under state executive orders a year into the pandemic, those orders have to be renewed every month or so, leading to anxious checks of state websites to make sure they’re still there.
To provide some degree of certainty, some lawmakers have proposed getting an actual law allowing alcohol-to-go on the books.
Proposals in the General Assembly would allow places with class B licenses — namely, restaurants — to continue to sell beer, wine and mixed drinks with takeout food orders.
But even if the legislation passes, the arrangement might not last forever.
One proposal, which recently passed the House, would expire at the end of 2021, part of a compromise to head off opposition from liquor stores. In other words, people could order celebratory champagne to go for New Year’s Eve 2021, but not hangover mimosas to go in the morning on New Year’s Day 2022.
A Senate version extends the expiration date to the end of 2022. But some restaurants and lawmakers say that alcohol to go shouldn’t expire at all.
“I think we should make this permanent,” state Senator Sam Bell, a Democrat of Providence, said at a committee hearing Wednesday night, where a number of booze bills were debated for more than two hours.
Still, proponents say, even if the proposals are imperfect, it’s important to give restaurants an added revenue source and space to argue for permanent changes in the year ahead.
“There’s some good things that can come out of COVID,” said Sarah Bratko, senior vice president of advocacy and general counsel of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association. “Allowing us to re-examine how we approach longstanding laws and traditions is one of them.”
According to Bratko, a recent survey commissioned by the industry found that some 82% of Rhode Islanders support alcohol-to-go.
“What else can you get 82 percent of Rhode Islanders to agree on?” said Bratko, who is helping lobby for the legislation under consideration now.
By allowing take-out alcoholic drinks for at least the rest of the year, they could prove that it wouldn’t harm liquor stores, and they could build on it for the future, Bratko said.
State Representative Jacquelyn Baginski, Democrat of Cranston, who sponsored the bill in the House, said it wasn’t meant to be a long-term policy change on alcohol in Rhode Island — but now might be the time to start the debate over it, with all the stakeholders at the table.
“If this is the impetus for us to do that, that’s wonderful,” she said. “In the meantime, let’s get our hospitality industry back to work.”
If restaurants do want to make a permanent change, they’ll probably have a fight on their hands. Any attempt to change the state’s liquor laws can face fierce blowback, as Wednesday night’s Senate hearing showed: Teamsters, liquor distributors and liquor stores all spoke up against different proposals to allow craft breweries to sell more beer or to allow direct wine shipments.
The continuation of booze-to-go from restaurants hasn’t come up against opposition from others in the industry, but that was the result of the compromise: letting it expire. Some people in the liquor store industry say the laws were fine the way they were, and should return back to normal once the pandemic is over.
“These issues weren’t brought up pre-COVID, so using COVID as an excuse to change those laws on a permanent basis, we’re just not for,” said Nicholas Fede Jr., the general manager of Kingstown Liquor Mart in North Kingstown, Rhode Island.
Fede said the liquor store industry as a whole is sympathetic to the needs of businesses that provide booze “on-premise” — in other words, restaurants and bars — and had no problem with allowing them to sell alcohol for takeout as long as the COVID-19 crisis lasts.
“We respect and are big fans of what on-premise operators do in this state,” said Fede, whose family owns Kingstown Liquor Mart. “But as far as being a long-term change to being allowed to sell alcohol in the way we’re allowed to sell alcohol, that just infringes on what our licenses are legally allowed to do.”
But some restaurants say they won’t step on liquor stores’ toes. And it’s restaurants, not liquor stores, that have dealt with major challenges in the pandemic.
“We’re not going to hurt them,” said Michael Strout, owner of GottaQ Smokehouse BBQ in Cumberland, Rhode Island. “They’re thriving already during this mess.”
Strout said selling alcohol to go has meant about a 25 percent boost in his business, and prevented layoffs even as he’s dealt with capacity restrictions that slashed his revenue.
There are also challenges with alcohol takeout from restaurants. Selling a mixed drink isn’t straightforward. The restaurant has to figure out some way to serve a drink in a sealed cup, which could require a sealing machine in order to satisfy insurance companies. That machine could cost thousands of dollars. Strout doesn’t want to pay that money unless he knows he’ll be able to do it for a while.
“If they’d make up their mind — that’s the biggest problem,” Strout said. “It’s up again, down again.”
It’s not just restaurants, of course, that have taken a hit from the pandemic. Ken Zorabedian runs a valet parking company that suffered when indoor dining was shut down. He improvised: In November, he launched a project called DASAP, or Delivery As Soon As Possible, sort of a local competitor to the GrubHub or UberEats delivery apps.
He’d like to be able to deliver cocktails and other libations with those meals. But one version of the bill in Rhode Island to allow takeout booze explicitly prohibit restaurants from selling alcohol with delivery orders. People can get deliveries from liquor stores in Rhode Island, and Massachusetts allowed restaurants to sell alcoholic drinks with food delivery during the pandemic under a law signed by Gov. Charlie Baker last year.
Zorabedian’s company contracts directly with restaurants, some of which he’d provided valet services for. Unlike the national apps, his drivers are employees, not contractors. Being able to deliver alcohol would be a big boost to his business, he said. It’s also safer: If someone’s working to deliver a drink, they’ll be less tempted to crack the bottle on the way back than if a restaurant patron is driving home after picking up the food.
“For me, it makes sense to say, when it’s 18 degrees in January, I’m gonna get four tacos delivered from Xaco Taco,” Zorabedian said, “and you know what? I’m gonna grab two margaritas, too.”