Booze To Go

For an industry built on adaptation, to-go alcohol sales could be the key to staying afloat in the COVID flood.

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Thanks to COVID, you can get this impressive lineup of cocktails to go.

Shortly after Governor Polis declared a state of emergency in Colorado on March 20, restaurants were granted the ability to sell alcoholic beverages to go and for delivery. That executive order has been extended prior to its expiration ever since. It’s likely that the Governor will continue to extend this order (and other orders that attempt to support struggling businesses) until the state of emergency comes to an end. When the time comes to let the chain of executive orders that started with D 2020 011 expire, restaurants and bars will have a longer-term safety net, thanks to the quick and decisive work of our state’s General Assembly.

On June 2, 2020, the Colorado General Assembly (GA) began the process of legislating a long-term rule change that has been a key component to the survival of some restaurants: to-go alcohol sales. On July 10, Polis signed the bill into law. Even with the priority of an abbreviated GA session focused on balancing the state budget, the legislators realized something had to be done to help restaurants weather the storm. Senate Majority Leader Stephen Fenberg was a proponent of the legislation. “This bill will help small restaurants and bars stay afloat in what is probably the most dire situation that sector has ever seen. Our small businesses are struggling and I’m glad we have been able to give them a bit of a lifeline, but a lot more assistance is needed—especially from Congress—to help them get through the fall and winter,” Fenberg says. “The state can only do so much with limited funding.”

At press time, Polis’ executive orders took priority in many aspects over the legislation known as SB20-213. The difference between the legislation and the executive order: Currently, food must be part of any sale involving to go or delivery of alcoholic beverages. That will not be the case once the executive orders expire, although to-go and takeout alcohol cannot exceed 50 percent of your annual gross sales. The other main factor set to change is that right now, there is no limit to how much alcohol you can sell in one transaction to an individual. Once executive orders expire, this will change to a maximum of “(A) Seven hundred fifty milliliters, approximately 26.4 ounces, of spirituous liquors and vinous liquors; and (B) seventy-two fluid ounces, approximately two thousand forty-six milliliters, of malt liquors, fermented malt beverages, and hard cider.” There is some room for interpretation here, and at press time, we had not received a definitive answer on how the Colorado Liquor Enforcement Division (LED) will interpret and enforce this statute.

Large format cocktails from Death & Co. run customers $88—a price that’s caused some drinkers pause.

While many liquor and wine store owners and operators are not in favor of restaurants selling to-go alcohol, others see this as a good thing for the alcohol industry as a whole. Dustin Chiappetta, owner of Pearl Wine Company in Denver, prefers to look through more of a macro lens. “We are all in the hospitality industry and we are all tour guides for consumers interested in wine, spirits, and cocktails,” he says. In fact, Chiappetta’s family has been in the restaurant business for more than 50 years. “I see firsthand how hard it is to be a restaurateur, especially during COVID.” In his eyes, this legislation was an absolute must for an industry slammed by coronavirus. “Concepts had to pivot during the pandemic and we will have to continue to evolve our food and wine concepts to fit demand to be sustainable in a post-COVID environment.”

More so than ever, flexibility in our industry is paramount. Alex Jump, who has been the head bartender at Death & Company’s Denver outpost since day one, offers a prime example. Jump and her team chose not to rush into a to-go program. Instead, they waited until mid-June, reopening with a fresh menu focused on the craft cocktails that are their lifeblood and composed of D&C classics that travel well. Initially, only online orders were accepted. Later on, a walk-up cocktail window was put into play—and sales took off. A common thread across the industry is that smaller servings sell better. The sticker shock of a large format cocktail like the 750-milliliter drinks offered at Death & Company ($88) have been slower moving.

Keeping costs in line while factoring in packaging is critical.

A number of tourist-driven locales have stepped up to help boost to-go sales for their resident bars and restaurants. Donovan Sornig, general manager at Mountain Standard in Vail, says that the town’s move to allow common consumption in Vail Village has been key to his establishment’s success. Guests who purchase a drink from his outdoor bar are welcome to consume it in a spacious area set up by the town. “It’s the silver lining within the new landscape we are all navigating,” he says. Long-time Vail industry vets Brandon Bigalke and Steven Teaver have been working on Bad Kitty Lounge, their new cocktail bar concept, since before coronavirus struck. With an original goal to be open by mid-September, they have refocused their program to take advantage of to-go beverages and hope the common consumption area remains in place throughout the ski season. Bad Kitty will offer canned beverages in a variety of sizes and quantities for mountaintop barbecues and slopeside picnics. Meanwhile, in Durango, El Moro Spirits and Tavern also offers to-go beverages. The restaurant’s sales are up from last year, but GM Dave Woodruff says that to-go drinks haven’t been a driving force.

As a whole, to-go cocktails are booming, but keeping costs in line while factoring in packaging is critical. It’s worth noting that the LED will implement new requirements for containers that will go into effect on November 1. Key among these is the new obligation to provide tamper-proof containers, which effectively eliminates many of the current products used, including mason jars; plastic, re-sealable beverage pouches; and kitchen deli containers. According to Michelle Stone-Principato, the director of LED, beverage manufacturers, in a meeting of stakeholders, are considering allowing the use of cans for bars and restaurants. This means restaurants will be permitted to use a can seamer best known in the brewery world for sealing crowlers. These canning devices are available at a variety of online retailers. The full extent of changes had not yet been published at press time but can be found at LED’s webpage

The only thing for sure in our current or post-COVID hospitality industry is that nothing is for sure, but our community is filled with resilient and creative minds working hard to keep moving forward. We need every potential penny on the P&L, and it’s clear that to-go alcohol is a revenue center worth paying attention to.

What’s worked for you? What hasn’t? Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to askus@diningout.com

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