Massachusetts restaurant owners are pushing the state to extend a pandemic-era regulatory change that allows them to sell cocktails to-go, arguing that would provide a needed long term boost to business.
Carryout cocktails have been allowed since July, when restaurants were beginning to welcome back in-person diners and even upper-scale establishments were scraping by on takeout orders. But state measures allowing people to buy to-go cocktails along with takeout food are set to expire June 15 when Governor Charlie Baker rescinds his March 2020 state-of-emergency order.
As COVID-19 cases decline and state restrictions are eased, some restaurant owners say the uncertainty clouds the future of what they consider a successful program.
“The to-go business is never going back to what it was before,” said Christopher Almeida, beverage director at The Tasty in Plymouth and an advocate for carryout cocktails. “If we don’t make it part of the culture and part of the business, we’re missing a giant opportunity.”
Lawmakers are considering a measure that would extend the authorization for at least two years. The proposal comes as efforts are underway in other states to continue similar alcohol carryout programs. Last week, Texas became the latest state to make such a move, following approvals in Florida, Ohio, and other states.
In Massachusetts, the initiative faces opposition from some package store owners, who argue that allowing restaurants to keep selling takeout cocktails could erode their businesses.
Robert A. Mellion executive director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, said the change made sense during an emergency, but his members want to restore the typical division between businesses that sell alcohol for drinking on-premise and those that sell it to be consumed elsewhere.
“They knew what they got into when they got into the business,” he said of restaurants whose licenses allowed them to sell beer, wine, and liquor onsite only.
Mellion said that if the temporary rules are extended, restaurants would attempt to compete directly with liquor stores. If restaurants can sell carryout products permanently, he said, liquor stores should be allowed to have tasting rooms where people could consume alcohol.
Senator Diana DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat who sponsored the bill to grant a two-year extension to restaurants, said she doesn’t see a direct threat to package stores.
DiZoglio was also a sponsor of a bill that passed last year and permitted mixed drinks for carryout. The state had previously authorized only beer and wine with takeout orders.
The measure covering mixed drinks limits customers to 64 ounces of cocktails per order. They have to be mixed onsite by a restaurant employee and sold with food. A separate measure by the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission allows restaurants to sell up to 92 ounces of malt beverages and 1.5 liters of wine for off-premises consumption as part of a food sale during the state of emergency.
“Anyone who’s ordered mixed drinks to go knows that it’s been a success, and this is one simple thing we can do to contribute to the public’s health and help with the economic recovery of these struggling restaurants,” DiZoglio said.
She said she would like the authorization to eventually become permanent. But she said she is pushing fellow lawmakers to approve an extension before the current system lapses.
Almeida, at The Tasty in Plymouth, acknowledged the amounts of alcohol he can sell for carryout are generous. But he said sales that reach those limits typically apply only to large orders of food. He said carryout cocktail sales have provided significant revenue for many restaurants he has contacted as part of his advocacy, comprising 10 to 50 percent of total sales.
He said that even if the restaurant business recovers in warmer months there is no guarantee customers would be as comfortable with indoor dining in colder weather as they were before the pandemic. Businesses like The Tasty, he said, need a clearer picture of how they can survive if that happens. For instance, he said, he needs to decide whether to continue investing in glass bottles for carryout cocktails, and the materials needed to seal them to comply with the law.
That spending will benefit the state’s overall economy, Almeida said.
“The fact is that not only is it helping employees,” he said, “but we also have to buy supplies.”