The idea of ordering a cocktail to go from a restaurant or bar in Pennsylvania, unthinkable just a couple of months ago, is now a reality.
Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday signed House Bill 327, giving an industry imperiled by the coronavirus shutdown the temporary authority to sell mixed drinks — typically among their highest-profit line. Bar stools and dining room seats must still remain empty.
The measure is effective immediately, and bars were ready to serve.
Lobbyists have now moved on to champion legislation to allow outdoor dining, arguing that it is a safer alternative for staff and patrons.
Pennsylvania’s cocktail-to-go rule extends only until businesses are able to seat at 60% of capacity. It applies to licensees with a restaurant (R) or hotel (H) license that have lost more than 25% of average monthly sales during the pandemic, and allows them to serve sealed containers of mixed drinks in servings of 4 to 64 ounces between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday, assuming the licensee has a Sunday sales permit. The drinks may not be delivered.
“It’s a huge win for our industry,” said Melissa Bova, vice president of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, who said the state’s restaurants have reported a sales decline of more than 80% since the beginning of the shutdown.
Though many publicans welcome the bill, which was delivered to Wolf on Monday, it will not be a magic bullet. “It’s one more Band-Aid on a gunshot wound,” said Chris D’Ambro, who owns four bar-restaurants in the Queen Village neighborhood. He has largely shuttered Southwark and Ambra, at Fourth and Bainbridge Streets, and is selling food for takeout and delivery out of Olly and Gigi, which share a building a block away at Fifth Street and Bainbridge.
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“It’s good because we can move some inventory, and it can allow us to add something to people’s meals," D’Ambro said. “But this is not a sustainable business model" while barrooms and dining rooms are closed. "It will give me a little bit more revenue, but I’m not going to be able to pay my rent all of a sudden.”
Stephen Starr said he is now selling a “Tom Wolf” margarita to go this week at El Vez, a Mexican restaurant in Center City. “It took a while, but it was worth the wait,” Starr said. “I’m very grateful to the governor for signing this bill.”
Scott Coudriet, who owns Lloyd, a bar-restaurant in Fishtown, said he changed his cocktail menu, which specializes in whiskey, to drinks “we can bang out.” Certain drinks, such as those made with egg white, do not travel well.
Most neighborhood shot-and-beer bars, which have been shut down since mid-March, likely won’t benefit from the measure. “They’re in a different boat based on their business model,” said Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, which helped draft the bill along with the PRLA. Beer sales have been allowed during the shutdown for takeout and delivery.
Moran praised the bill for allowing his members “to keep their heads above water a little longer.”
Dive bars typically don’t sell “meals,” a requirement of the new statute. Also under the rule, “mixed drinks” and not shots must be served, and must be mixed on the premises. This gives work to bartenders.
Drinks also must be sold in a sealed container, which simply means that a cup with sipping holes or an opening for straws must be capped with an additional seal. Many restaurants are using the familiar plastic quart-size takeout containers that cost a dime or so. Others are buying glass bottles and caps, or disposable pouches resembling intravenous bags.
The 4-ounce minimum was added to the bill by the House delegation from Philadelphia to prevent stop-and-go stores “from selling shots the wrong way,” Moran said.
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Open containers of alcohol are still prohibited in Pennsylvania, while the practice was recently allowed in North Wildwood.
The Pennsylvania legislation received bipartisan support: Rep. Kurt Masser, a Republican who serves Montour and parts of Northumberland and Columbia Counties, championed the issue, which started as a reform bill introduced by Rep. Perry Warren, a Democrat who represents part of Bucks County.
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States said 33 states plus the District of Columbia now allow restaurants and/or bars to sell cocktails to go, bottled spirits to go, or both.