PROVIDENCE — For nearly four decades, Rhode Island’s business owners have gone without discounting their alcoholic beverages during “down times,” after the lunch rush and before dinner reservations peaked, and still crafted a robust dining scene. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, consumer behavior changed and some hospitality leaders are trying to find ways to boost sales and prevent further closures.
“Happy hour,” designed as “after-work specials” on alcoholic beverages in other cities, has been prohibited in Rhode Island since 1985, just like in Massachusetts. But a new bill, introduced by Representative Karen Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat, could possibly lift the ban.
“When this bill passes, I want it to do right by the business owners and the patrons,” Alzate said. “I want this to be an opportunity for restaurants — bring in more business and to be able to be innovative with their food.”
Saje Kitchen owner Jessica Wilkin said restarting happy hour would allow her newly opened restaurant to experiment with different plates and cocktails, which could go from being a test run during happy hour to a permanent menu item if it’s successful.
“You look at places like Miami or New York City and it’s the hospitality industry that makes those cities. To offer something like this will allow us to get business in the door and a sense of camaraderie; and frankly, something to look forward to,” she said.
Ed Brady, who owns The Thirsty Beaver with locations in Smithfield, Cranston, and Foxboro, Mass., said these discounts would incentivize customers who have less of a disposable income to go out.
But other restaurant owners and employees have mixed reactions to the bill, which would require businesses to serve “full meals” prepared on the premises with happy hour drink specials. And that would exclude snacks.
“I don’t think we need happy hour in Rhode Island,” said Stephanie Morley, who has been a managing partner for Texas Roadhouse for the last six years. “If anything, it will encourage customers to come out early and spend less than they would have.”
Morley said surrounding states haven’t implemented happy hour, so Rhode Island “certainly isn’t losing customers to them.”
Sarah Bratko, who is the senior vice president of advocacy and general counsel at the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, said the association hasn’t taken a stance on the issue yet, but sent a survey to its members to hear their thoughts. Responses are still coming in, and she said many owners feel very strongly on both sides.
“There’s also a concern because there’s no real data out there that shows that this could increase business. Some of our members are concerned that this could just discount the customer base they already have, like it’s a race to the bottom,” said Bratko. “Others in restaurant-dense areas say if their neighbors start adding specials, then they will be forced to do the same.”
She added, “Then again, some owners are trying to do anything to boost sales.”
The bill also defines “meal” as food that is prepared on the premises, “which is sufficient to constitute breakfast, lunch or dinner.” It also defines snacks as “including, but not limited to, pretzels, popcorn, chips, or similar food” which “do not meet the definition of a meal.”
“Eliminate the food requirement,” quipped Brendan McCaughey, who owns Nolan’s Corner Pub in Providence. “Forty-two states allow happy hours... But I don’t think any of them confuse the matter by requiring food, much less trying to define a ‘full meal.’”
Bratko said defining what would be considered a “full meal” versus a “snack” is where the state could enter murky waters.
“How would we regulate that and how would the state enforce it? That’s going to cause a lot of confusion,” said Bratko.
John Begin has been bartending for the last 12 years on Aquidneck Island, and now owns Newport Live Events. He said he was also bartending in the 1980s when Happy hours were banned. At the time, he said, Newport’s bar scene was “a little crazier than it is today,” because liquor licenses were more accessible and less expensive, and dive bars were “an actual thing.” But at this point, he said, the reigns should be loosened on regulations.
“I think [Rhode Island should] bring back happy hour the way it used to be and allow your bartender to run the room safely the way he or she is licensed to do,” he said. He acknowledged that while the bill “moves in the right direction,” it “actually stands still” by adding food stipulations.
Rick Simone, executive director of the Federal Hill Commerce Association and president of the Ocean State Coalition, said he spoke to Alzate on Monday and voiced concerns that small business owners had over the bill. Alzate told the Globe she will present these concerns in committee.
When asked if a single small plate would be considered a full meal or a snack at a Tapas restaurant, such as Palo in Providence, Alzate said “See, that’s where it could get funky.”
“I’m OK with changes. But I want to keep the bones of the bill. You should have to order some type of food to get the actual deal on alcohol,” she said. “I’m taking the advice of those in the industry. They’re the experts.”
While many owners — and their employees — are ready to go “all in” on happy hour or completely disregard it altogether, others are sitting on the sidelines to wait and see what changes will be made on the bill after Tuesday’s hearing.
Julia Broome, who owns Kin Southern Table + Bar, a popular new eatery in downtown Providence, said she has “mixed emotions” about the bill.
“I hope that it would draw both new customers and regulars to come and enjoy Kin. However, I’m sure it could bring some challenges as well,” said Broome. But to her, “having the freedom as a business owner to make that call for my business is going to be super important.”