This is Eater Voices, where chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and industry insiders share their perspectives about the food world, tackling a range of topics through the lens of personal experience.
On December 14, when I watched our Minnesota representatives and senators vote no to the bill allowing cocktails to go, my heart broke. For the last nine months, I’ve watched my industry friends stand strong in the face of unimaginable odds. They have done everything that was asked of them for the betterment of all Minnesotans, and they’ve done it with patience and grace.
The holiday season, for me, is the most beautiful time of year to be a hospitality professional. Usually, our spaces are filled with friends, laughter, families, clinking glasses, bold speeches, some tears, and most importantly, loved ones. For food and beverage workers, we live vicariously through those we serve.
Last year, for the first time in my 12 years working in the industry, it was dark behind those glass windows. Minnesotan legislators failed, once again, to produce any policy that would allow the state’s hospitality workers, displaced by the pandemic, the ability to create alternative revenue opportunities and regain some employment. Minnesota is not unique in this situation. Our federal government has repeatedly failed the food and beverage industry: nearly 1 in 4 jobs lost (and counting) during this crisis has been from an independent restaurant or bar. But some states have approved a simple measure that helps these small businesses and their workers tremendously — legislation that allows bars and restaurants to develop to-go cocktails programs.
This small change sounds like a novelty, but it could be the very thing that allows many bars and restaurants to survive until they can reopen at full capacity. To understand how, we need to understand where hospitality businesses make most of their profit. A typical restaurant’s product mix usually splits 60-40 between the sales of food to alcohol. The cost of goods sold (COGs) for food usually lands around 30 percent, which means that for every dollar you spend at a restaurant, 30 cents goes to pay for raw ingredients. The rest of the pie is eaten up by labor, rent, utilities, interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization.
Alcohol, on the other hand, has wonderful margins. Like food, wine is usually sold at around 30 percent COGs, but adds no labor costs, which usually hovers around an additional 35 percent of costs. Beer falls around 25 percent COGs, and cocktails and spirits, if done correctly, hit 18 percent COGs. Simply put: alcohol sales are how the majority of independent owners and operators bring enough to the bottom line to survive in a notoriously tough business.
As a bonus, we bartenders get to select brands that reflect our personal taste and ethos, and in Minnesota, we have hundreds of small distilleries, breweries, and cideries to champion, whose products are also mostly sold through local distributors as opposed to out-of-state conglomerates that push Big Liquor. We operate in a triangle of alcohol production, distribution, and sales called the three-tier system, and its history, laws, and regulations are absolutely Kafkaesque, draconian, and fascinating.
Right now, every hospitality business owner I know is trying to lose the least amount of money and hold on until something saves us. When restaurants and bars were operating at dramatically reduced capacity, we couldn’t responsibly serve enough alcohol to make up for the reduction in foot traffic — especially now that most of our guests are avoiding taxis and ride-sharing services. If we could sell guests to-go libations that they could enjoy in the safety of their home, this would allow them to support their favorite business in a financially meaningful way as we ride this pandemic out together.
Since March, the number of states that allow the sales of to-go cocktails has surged from two to 33. Some of these allowances are temporary, but many have already become permanent. Why isn’t Minnesota following suit? The first argument likely relates to public health: Food safety is vital across the hospitality industry, and chefs and bartenders take it seriously. But as a consumable product, to-go cocktails are as safe as it gets. Standard operating procedures counter all potential biological, chemical, and physical hazards when an analysis is applied to portable cocktails. The pH, brix, and alcohol content of an average cocktail creates an extremely inhospitable environment that negates any possible growth of dangerous pathogens. There is exponentially more risk in eating a salad than imbibing a pre-batched cocktail.
The second argument is public safety, or the idea that if restaurants and bars are allowed to sell alcohol to-go, pure pandemonium will ensue. But no one is proposing that we turn our streets into a New Orleans-style Bacchanalia. It’s a flattering thought that our cocktails are so irresistible that guests won’t be able to wait until they get home to start drinking them, but this argument is unsubstantiated. Tamper-proof seals are easily accessible and built into the legislation. Liquor stores already are selling pre-batched cocktails (White Claw is a vodka soda with artificial flavoring). To-go cocktails would be packaged and sold in the same way we require products sold in liquor stores, which carry the same risk of irresponsible behavior.
An equally unsubstantiated, but seemingly more logical argument would be that we need to-go cocktails to provide a safe option for our guests as ride-sharing services are down 65 percent. DUIs are also down 70 percent, and we should want to keep it that way. Once indoor restrictions are lifted, if we were able to sell take-home cocktails, more guests would make the responsible choice to take the festivities to the safety of their home instead of the decision to have one more at our establishments. Correlation does not imply causation, but instead of a zero-sum argument, let’s create a solution.
A third argument is that if we allow restaurants and bars to sell to-go cocktails, liquor stores will become redundant and go out of business. This has been proven overwhelmingly false in all 33 states that have passed cocktail to-go legislation; liquor stores continue to thrive and have continued to report record sales. Let’s at least let restaurants apply for off-premise licensing as easily as liquor stores can apply for an on-premise license. Right now, a liquor store can attach a restaurant or food retail shop with no extraneous hassle, and the rest of the food and beverage industry fully supports them in doing so. We only ask for the same chance to diversify our businesses.
Cocktails to-go was likely torpedoed on December 14th due to being an amendment introduced in the 11th hour. The bill, in its existing language, would allow on-premise (bars and restaurants) the ability to sell 33 ounces of pre-batched cocktails and perform growler sales. The amendment, on the other hand, was crafted to allow distilleries and breweries the ability to temporarily self-distribute 1.5 liters of alcohol and cans/crowlers directly to consumers, which is more than what is currently allowed in our statutes and also bypasses distributors and on and off-premise licenses. The omnibus was subsequently shot down, in the house by a heartbreaking verbal “no” and in the Senate at a 35-31 vote.
Breweries and distilleries should be able to temporarily self-distribute a nominal amount of product as it will help them through this pandemic. Unfortunately, that amendment triggers a slew of special interests and lobbyists; big beer, big liquor, distributors, teamsters/Union, and on and off-premise licensees who are not empathetic. They are scared they won’t be able to turn off the faucet once that revenue stream is allowed. A similar amendment was introduced in spring and also failed. If you’re reading this and feel frustrated and confused, you’re not alone. And meanwhile, businesses are continuing to go dark forever.
Minnesota is well-positioned to pass the most comprehensive, intentional, and thoughtful version of to-go cocktail legislation in the country. This isn’t a partisan issue: both Republicans and Democrats see their values represented in allowing us the opportunity to fight for our survival while keeping Minnesota safe and simultaneously creating tax revenue. The three-tier system and its baggage is not unique to us, but Minnesota’s legislative apathy is. Senator Dahms (who, arguably, is the most vocal opponent of this temporary legislation) asked for this to go to the committee; we have the opportunity to do that now. To-go cocktails are not a magic bullet, but it is something, and we need something right now. I hope our legislators can reflect on Minnesotan’s core values of love, empathy, and respect when they return to session today.
Later this year, we will hopefully be able to gather with our loved ones to celebrate all we’re grateful for. In good times, we romantically talk about the third place, the place that is neither work nor home, the place that is important to us as a community and culture, and that third place for many was restaurants and bars. In 2021, if we continue down this path, there will be far fewer spaces and a lot less magic to enjoy. I just wish to see my friends’ windows bright again on the other side.
Marco Zappia is an award-winning Minneapolis beverage specialist who has worked at such notable establishments as Eat Street Social, Grand Cafe, and developed the groundbreaking beverage programs at Martina and Colita. He has been recognized as an industry leader by Forbes, Imbibe, Esquire, and more. Like so many other bar professionals, he is currently unemployed.