Worried that the four Virginia restaurants she runs were headed for disaster during the pandemic, Sarah White branched out.
The neighborhood restaurants, which serve casual-style foods such as burgers and sandwiches, started providing curbside pickup. One of the owners applied for and got funding from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. And when Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam in April allowed restaurants to offer cocktails to-go, White decided to give it a try.
“At first, we were apprehensive about the logistics, but then we realized this was the new reality and opted to do it,” said White, the chief operating officer of YHR Holdings, which operates the Cowboy Café and three Lost Dog Cafés in Northern Virginia. “It’s not a huge chunk of sales, but it’s something, and right now, something counts.”
Virginia is one of at least 32 states that decided during the pandemic to allow restaurants to sell cocktails to-go in some form, according to Mike Whatley, a vice president at the National Restaurant Association, an industry trade group.
Beer and wine to-go are included as well, said Steve Gross, a vice president at the Wine Institute, a wine industry trade group.
Lawmakers in some states are pushing to make the changes permanent.
Some states, counties and cities also are trying to help restaurants and bars by reducing or waiving alcohol licensing fees, which can range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. But some industry officials said the money saved from reduced fees is miniscule compared with the money gained from cocktail sales.
The cocktails to-go rules—such as whether the alcohol needs to be placed in a specific container, what the packaging looks like and whether it must be placed in a vehicle’s trunk—differ from state to state.
The most recent approvals came in late December, when North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order authorizing to-go sales in his state, and the Oregon legislature approved a bill that Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed into law.
“It has been really important to restaurants during this crisis. Typically, alcohol, especially cocktails, is one of your highest margins,” Whatley said. “When you’re relying more on takeout and delivery, if you’re missing cocktails to-go you’re missing that revenue stream.”