New York’s bars, restaurants and distillers say they’re suffering from the abrupt end of to-go cocktails

“We have not recovered yet and we won’t for a long time," one distiller told Salon

By Zak Kostro
Published July 4, 2021 5:30PM (EDT)
Two friends toast with to-go strawberry mojitos in front of a bar. (Hauke-Christian Dittrich/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Two friends toast with to-go strawberry mojitos in front of a bar. (Hauke-Christian Dittrich/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Taking alcohol to-go in New York halted abruptly on June 25 to the outrage of many bar owners and restaurateurs, as well as local distillers, who'd come to rely on to-go cocktails as a pandemic lifeline. But some of these small business owners tell Salon the sudden end of to-go drinks is just another example of how the city and state have failed to support the bar, restaurant and local distilling industry during the economic crisis brought about by COVID-19.

At the start of the pandemic, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, under his temporary emergency executive order power, implemented a slate of policies designed to help bars and restaurants weather economic setbacks. One was a temporary modification to New York's Alcoholic Beverage Control Law to allow bars and restaurants to sell cocktails to-go, providing a desperately-needed revenue stream as many hovered on the brink of survival.

But on June 23, Cuomo declared the start of a "new chapter" when he announced that New York's COVID-19 state of emergency — which had allowed bars and restaurants to sell alcoholic beverages to-go since March 2020 — would be lifted after June 24.

Cuomo had previously extended the state's alcohol to go program by 30 days, set to expire on July 5, but city and state organizations took the expiration of the state of emergency as an early end to takeout cocktails for restaurants and bars, too. 

"With the ending of our state of emergency and the return to pre-pandemic guidelines, the temporary pandemic-related privileges for to-go and delivery of alcoholic beverages will end after June 24," the State Liquor Authority said in a tweet following Cuomo's announcement. However, bars and restaurants, in addition to "manufacturers with on-premises privileges," may still deliver and sell beer to-go, as they could before the pandemic, a spokesperson for the SLA confirmed in an email to Salon.

The suddenness of the announcement shocked local bar and restaurant owners, although some expressed more outrage than others. 

"I can well understand the hue and cry of those in the industry who have invested thousands in canning or bottling machines and bespoke packaging materials to be able to sell cocktails to go," Toby Cecchini, owner of the Long Island Bar and the Rockwell Place in Brooklyn, tells Salon. "The governor and the legislature have acted in a blindly cynical manner here, it seems."

While to-go sales created "just a little trickle" in business for the Long Island Bar and Rockwell Place, the "thunder-from-above immediacy of the rescinding — without any explanation or discussion, without providing businesses that have made substantial investments in these materials at a very difficult time some kind of buffer period — is a bit demoralizing," Cecchini adds. 

"It also makes for a very ominous precedent when one begins to wonder what's going to happen with outdoor dining," he said. "That has been our lifeline, and imagining it being similarly ripped away right now would be a death sentence. Outdoor dining — like the to-go cocktail initiative — is simply something people, now that they've seen it and gotten used to it, have found to be an overwhelmingly positive addition to our cityscape … It's not like, 'Okay, we're all back to normal now, let's take back any posture of largesse we extended to the hospitality industry.' It's going to be years getting back on our feet properly."

Amanda Cohen, a James Beard-nominated chef and owner of acclaimed Lower East Side vegetable restaurant Dirt Candy, took a similar stance.

"I do think how it's been handled by the state is incredibly short-sighted and unfair to businesses that have been relying on it as a form of revenue," Cohen says. "While none of us thought it was going to last forever, ending it overnight was downright cruel."

As the state lifts restrictions and reopens, New York — alongside other states — is debating the fate of expanded outdoor dining and to-go cocktails. When it comes to drinks to-go, a conversation has arisen about public health impact versus sales boost, particularly in light 2020 reports about throngs of drinkers brazenly imbibing in the streets while disregarding social distancing. The state, in response, put in stringent restrictions that held bars and restaurants responsible for cracking down on bad behavior, which some owners said went beyond reasonable expectations for enforcement.

But Cecchini says such open-air carousal wasn't an issue at his bars. "I have read about some bad actors running virtual block parties outside of their bars in the middle of the pandemic, but from where I am, it was regular customers just asking if they could take a 'walktail' down to the water to stroll the park," he says. "It made us all seem a bit more like the self-guided adults we're meant to be, rather than the puritanical state-coddled toddlers the blue laws still on the books paint us as. Of course, that little bit of maturity had to be grabbed back."

Similarly, Cohen says her restaurant's patrons tend to be fairly low-key. "Dirt Candy doesn't really attract a big drinking crowd and we never had to police bad behavior, but it did feel unfair that the burden was placed on restaurants to enforce once the drinks were off premise," she says. "I think most restaurant owners already felt like the COVID police throughout most of the pandemic, so having to be the alcohol police too was just one more injustice forced upon us by the state."

Alexi Minko, owner of Alibi Lounge in Harlem, echoes Cecchini and Cohen — the sudden end of cocktails to go "came as a surprise," he says. "It was an overnight announcement and I hear a lot of colleagues complaining about the fact that it was very short, very brief." 

Those who'd stocked up on inventory and supplies for to-go drinks were especially peeved. Fortunately for Alibi, Minko anticipated it and prepared accordingly. Since early June Alibi pared down its takeout drinks menu to a single, wildly popular cocktail — margaritas. Additionally, Alibi's compact size works to its advantage, whereas bigger restaurants in Manhattan that leaned heavily on takeout sales could have a harder time adjusting. Still, the importance of to-go cocktails during a rollercoaster year shouldn't be understated. 

"Takeout and delivery of alcohol … was a lifeline for all of us," Minko says. "At some point during the pandemic, it was our only source of revenue." And if it ever becomes an option again, "we'll definitely capitalize on it, especially during warmer months," he adds.

Despite losing a lifeline, Minko is optimistic for Alibi and the industry in general. "We're all capable of bouncing back," he says. While he hopes cocktails to go aren't gone for good, in the meantime, he's focused on selling what he can — at the bar and to go. "We can still sell beers to go," he notes, and that means beer-based cocktails, too. 

"We can be creative," he says. 

***

Still, the rescinding of drinks to-go comes at a uniquely challenging moment for bars and restaurants as they're already reeling from the last 15 months. 

"We're doing better, gaining traction, starting to get our feet underneath us," says Andrea Needell Matteliano, bar director at Clay, also in Harlem. "This time last year we were terrified of losing our business. Now we find ourselves in a much better position, but we don't have the staff to really carry it. We hired some tremendous, outstanding new talent, but it's not enough. There's a dire shortage. We can't have as many tables as we need to [in part because] I don't have enough bartenders." 

That's why the return of indoor dining probably won't make up for the loss of takeout wine and cocktails. Furthermore, it's uncertain when — if ever — workers will return as "a significant number of restaurant industry folks have parlayed their skills into another area," Matteliano says. 

She anticipates that it's "going to be a slow rebuilding and a rough ride for the next year or two, at least."

As Matteliano sees it, outrage over the end of to-go liquor speaks to a broader issue. 

"From the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a blatant disregard for the well-being of the restaurant industry," she explains. "We're risking our lives but still feel disregarded [despite] the substantive number of jobs and amount of tax revenue we create." 

She says that it's as though, in the eyes of the state, "we're not worthy of any more than 24 hours' notice" about this shift that only exacerbates the pandemic's negative effects on bars' bottom line. 

Bobby Digi, co-owner of O'Henry's Publick House in Staten Island, also railed against the unexpected end of to-go cocktails.

"It's unfortunate how the city and state operate," Digi tells Salon. "The inconsistency is a major issue. Since the start of the pandemic, we [bars and restaurants] get last-minute notices. It's like we're being targeted to bear the brunt" of the economic hardship with "little to no support."

O'Henry's pulled in around 10% to 15%" of its revenue from to-go liquor, Digi says, noting that they were getting "creative as a British pub," pairing specific cocktails with a mix of classic and elevated pub grub. But that's "out the window now," he laments, noting customers "want to eat and drink," so not being able to-get a cocktail to go could hurt food sales.

"People drink on the streets anyway," Digi says. "People drink outside bodegas. People drink on the streets, period. If customers come to our restaurants to order food to take home, we take much more ownership. We regulate. No restaurant is going to allow someone just randomly drinking on their streets."

The quick turnaround on to-go cocktail allowances has cost some restaurant and bar owners in other ways, too. With July Fourth and other summer holidays around the corner, Digi was ready to roll out a stacked lineup of drinks specials with ample to-go cocktail options. 

"We're going to have to pull all that advertisement," Digi says. "Now it's back to the drawing board. It's difficult as is with all the challenges restaurants and small businesses face — especially minority-owned small businesses — but this is a lose-lose."

***

But bars and restaurants aren't the only ones hurting from the brusque return to pre-pandemic guidelines. Local distilleries also benefited from the temporary ability to deliver their spirits directly to in-state customers. Now, along with drinks to-go, direct shipping has come to an end, meaning it's much more difficult for small distilleries to get their bottles into the hands of drinkers. 

"While the state leaders may want to get back to 'normal,' our on-site business has not recovered by half, and asking us to pivot, yet again, away from online sales back to in-person with a day's notice is premature and punitive," Kings County Distillery tweeted following Cuomo's announcement. 

The Brooklyn-based whiskey maker implored the governor to "please consider extending the emergency orders. Bars, restaurants, distilleries and wineries are not at all back to normal. We are still in an emergency even if the immediate health threat has subsided." 

Along with to-go cocktails and direct delivery, the end of the state of emergency nixed Kings County's in-state virtual tasting program, the distillery said in an email on June 24 to fans of its whiskey, while offering a "final goodbye sale for 10% off everything."

Kings County Distillery is grappling with "lingering economic damage that has to be addressed," co-founder and distiller Colin Spoelman tells Salon, noting that the business is still operating at "about half capacity." 

While the distillery benefited from to-go cocktails, losing the ability to deliver directly to customers is particularly detrimental because they'd invested heavily in it over the course of the pandemic. The distillery also was shipping tasting kits, and that's been "chopped off at the knees," Spoelman says. "We're not recovered, the news came too soon, and I think it was mishandled," he adds. 

The State Liquor Authority "chose to interpret the executive order very narrowly and in a way that was very punitive," Spoelman says, considering how pandemic-era behavior patterns are still affecting a lot of businesses — including small distilleries that recently resumed in-person tours and tastings.

Spoelman notes that prior to the pandemic, Kings County's tours and on-site sales accounted for about a third of the distillery's overall business, whereas during the pandemic, online business came to represent about a fifth, thanks to emergency privileges like direct shipping and cocktails to-go. 

According to Spoelman, the distillery was "just back to normal" with the combined return of on-site business combined with direct shipping and to-go cocktails, but now that those privileges have been taken away, it's "back to the pandemic again." 

"We just lost the opportunity to break even to what things used to be — 15 months after we got the first devastating blow," Spoelman says. 

Others on New York's urban distilling trail also continue to struggle despite the end of the official state of emergency. Allen Katz, distiller and owner at New York Distilling Co., also in Brooklyn, says that delivery became a "very important revenue stream." 

Katz notes there's staunch opposition from liquor stores against extending distilleries' direct shipping privileges. While some liquor store owners see it as a threat, Katz argues they shouldn't. 

"We charge the same prices you see in a retail setting," he explains. "For shipping, we're not only charging the same retail prices you see in Brooklyn or Manhattan," but customers must pay an additional "$8 to $15 for a bottle or two" to have it delivered to them. 

Additionally, Katz says, New York Distilling Co.'s website specifically stated that their first preference was for customers to support local retailers by shopping for distillery's whiskey and gin there. For those unable to find it at their local liquor store, delivery "was a really wonderful outlet for us to not only create new revenue [but also] connect with potential new customers." 

"All that being said, we sold a few hundred bottles during the harshest month of the pandemic. Our primary business is not as a retailer," Katz says. 

The end of alcohol to go had repercussions for distilleries far beyond the five boroughs. "It affected me greatly," says Claire Marin, founder and head distiller at Catskill Provisions Distillery in Callicoon, New York. 

"I am a farm distillery trying to survive. It's definitely not easy — especially distilling on the grain — but it's very rewarding," she says. "There's a lot of passion in it, and the ability to sell cocktails to-go and ship to people's homes was a really good opportunity to get our brand out there." 

Those temporary "privileges" were even more important considering that when the distillery opened its tasting room to the public recently — still requiring masks — many people were "still afraid to come out," Marin says. Toward late May, as more people got vaccinated, they began to feel more comfortable coming inside, but not enough to make up for ending to-go cocktails and delivery, Marin adds, noting that she's considering cutting a bartender now that cocktails to-go and direct shipping are gone.

The ability to ship directly to local customers is particularly key for small distilleries, Marin says. Craft distillers don't necessarily have the distribution channels that big companies have, which allow them to fill "every single shelf" in liquor stores with their products. 

"We don't have the dollars to have brand ambassadors everywhere, and our distributor is small," Marin explains. "When somebody comes to the distillery, they love what they taste," but may have a hard time tracking it down if their local liquor store doesn't carry it. 

And being in upstate New York — as opposed to, say, midtown Manhattan — makes it tougher to reach new customers."I really have to rethink a few things," Marin says. "Thank goodness I have a good strong season to look forward to, because summer is beginning." 

But, Marin says, that's not going to help bottle sales outside her distillery and tasting room.

"But that's not going to help my bottle sales outside my distillery and tasting room. Pressure was put on the government from [liquor stores], but they increased their sales one hundred percent," Marin says. "We're losing at least 30% to 40% of our sales due to restaurants being closed [whereas] retailers gained sales from" increased drinking at home during the pandemic. 

She continues:"Smaller business doesn't really have the lobbying power that the larger businesses do. We are the engine of business in America, but we're still not really given the support that we deserve."

***

Brian Facquet — the head distiller at Do Good Spirits in Roscoe, New York, and president of New York State Distillers Guild — is perhaps one of the most committed advocates of direct-to-consumer shipping. The guild represents all distilled spirits licensees in the state, which total around 160 distilleries. 

Direct-to-consumer shipping proved a lifeline for Do Good Spirits — as it did for many of the distillers Facquet represents as guild president, he says. 

According to him, being able to deliver directly to drinkers "might've been the difference between paying your mortgage that month and paying your employees, or not paying them."

"For most people this wasn't a matter of growing your business, this was a matter of surviving," he says. 

When that was taken away virtually overnight, Facquet says that it sent a shock through the craft distilling industry — especially since things aren't going to otherwise normalize overnight. If the pandemic united people virtually, it distanced them physically, which created a monumental challenge for small distilleries. 

"It's not like we have millions of people coming to our tasting rooms," Facquet says. "We have not recovered yet and we won't for a long time." 

Looking ahead, Facquet is focused on survival — through a combination of collaboration, education, advocacy and sweat. "Like any small business owner, we try to adjust," he says. "I know the loss of this is going to put some small distilleries out of business [and some] don't necessarily qualify for a lot of the aid that's out there." 

He says that one of the next steps is educating consumers about why they can't purchase alcohol and products directly from distilleries. "After 15 months we've proven that we can do it safely," he says. "It was a great experiment, it worked — and now we're supposed to pretend it didn't happen?"

***

Katz of New York Distilling Co., as well as other bar owners and distillers, believes to-go cocktails have a chance of being resurrected. "I think the most responsible thing to do is say … let's continue to review" the legislation, he says.

While some liquor store owners oppose making to-go drinks permanent, the state Assembly has been working on a bill that would address their concerns while extending takeout cocktails, says Assembly member John T. McDonald III, a co-sponsor of the bill. 

Some of the opposition, McDonald says, may have been sparked by upstate grocery markets putting out "cases and cases of wine and liquor for sale," as opposed to someone buying a "nice $15 glass of wine" along with their takeout supper from a restaurant.

McDonald says it's a stretch to view a to-go cocktail as a serious threat to liquor stores, which "did exceptionally well during COVID" when drinks to-go were allowed.

With the COVID-19 emergency coming to an end, the Legislature had a shot at extending to-go cocktails, but "chose not to extend this privilege," an SLA spokesperson told Salon in an email. Bills were introduced in 2020 and 2021 to change the law and allow to-go sales — including S8392/A10550 and S8565/A10534A in the 2019-2020 session and S589A/A7732 and A3116 from the 2020-2021 session — but never moved from committee, the spokesperson said.

"There is no provision in the Alcoholic Beverage Control Law that would give the State Liquor Authority the power to extend the ability for restaurants to sell cocktails to go, temporarily or otherwise," the spokesperson said. "Doing so would be contrary to the law and the Legislature's intent."

Meanwhile, state Sen. Patrick Gallivan also is co-sponsoring legislation to legalize to-go alcohol and urging leaders of the senate and Assembly to convene a special session of the legislature to pass the bill this summer, according to Gallivan's office. The legislation prohibits bars and restaurants from selling full bottles of wine or liquor.

The New York State Liquor Store Association didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

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Zak Kostro

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