Originally published in The Hill
By Danny Cattan and James Vitrano
Nearly every neighborhood has a friendly bar where everyone knows each other’s names. Sadly, these establishments have been getting economically pounded during the pandemic lockdown.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If there weren’t so many bizarre and, frankly, hypocritical laws on the books regarding the purchase and consumption of liquor, these bars would have a fighting chance.
The pandemic has clearly shown that people still want to have a drink. Alcohol sales have been through the roof. Bar owners, for their part, are more than willing to be flexible and adapt their operations to new ways of serving customers, whether it’s by offering to-go options, drive-throughs or curbside pickups.
Now they need legislators to do their part by hightailing it to state capitals and taking a weed whacker to some of the arcane liquor laws that are stifling free enterprise right when we need it most.
Many states have varying and complicated sets of rules for manufacturers, distributors and sellers of alcohol. These rules tightly control who is allowed to sell liquor in to-go form, and guess what? They’re set up to benefit the powerful and well-established players and to prevent new entrants from grabbing a slice of the pie.
Think back to when microbreweries first became popular destinations. Ever wonder why it was so hard to buy a to-go six pack of that beer directly from the microbrewery? Again, it was because of certain laws. Eventually, exceptions were made for things like growlers, but the law didn’t make it easy.
Want more absurdities around liquor rules? In many states, you can go to a drive-through liquor store and buy a bottle of champagne, but you can’t buy a poured glass of champagne with a lid on it. It has to be in a “manufacture sealed” container. Never mind the fact that a top is a top.
To be clear, we’re not advocating drinking and driving. What we’re talking about is the ability to buy a drink to-go without necessarily having to sit inside the establishment. For example, on your way home from work, you might want to pick up a couple of margaritas for you and your significant other to enjoy once you get home. What’s wrong with that?
If legislators are worried about people purchasing alcohol while in their cars, or drinking it off-premise before they get to their destination, then why not allow all liquor to be distributed through food delivery services like UberEats or Seamless, or available for purchase on Amazon? Why is that still prohibited in places?
This is a prime opportunity to rethink a lot of ridiculous aspects of the way we’ve always done things and that includes open container laws. If someone is strolling from their house to the beach on a hot summer day with an open container in their hand, who is that actually hurting? Is that a crime worthy of a several hundred dollar ticket, which most Americans can’t even afford.
Likewise, what’s the logic in not allowing someone to leave an establishment with a drink they ordered? Rather than leave the drink behind, most people might opt for drinking it all at once. A suddenly inebriated patron leaving and roaming the streets could become a liability for the establishment. If officials were truly interested in curbing public intoxication, you’d think they’d want to limit that type of behavior.
Relaxing liquor laws around to-go and open containers would be good for commerce, encouraging more cross-pollination among businesses in mixed use areas. Someone could meet a couple of friends for a cocktail, and then sip a drink on the go as they strolled to a different shop or restaurant or music venue. This freedom gives the consumer the ability to easily enjoy all the other businesses beyond the four walls of the place where they actually bought the drink.
It’s not as if there are no precedents for allowing alcohol to be served or consumed in creative new ways. Look at movie theaters: The ability to order a beer and have it brought to you while you’re watching the latest blockbuster has practically reinvented the moviegoing experience for a large segment of the population.
The people in the bar and restaurant industry have the ingenuity to figure out the best way to reinvent themselves in the current challenging business environment. But the lawmakers cannot stand in the way of them coming up with creative solutions.
We’ve always been a nation of evolution, and it’s way past time for liquor laws to get an update.
We need liquor laws that will help bars, restaurants and small businesses successfully adapt to the changing times — not drive them into an early grave.
James Vitrano is the chief development officer of Fat Tuesday, a bar concept established in 1983. Danny Cattan is the director of Global Franchise Development at Fat Tuesday.