The revelation that pandemic-era cocktails to-go and temporarily licensed outdoor dining setups are suddenly illegal in Pennsylvania came as a shock to most restaurant and bar owners Tuesday evening.
Even on Wednesday morning, some in the industry still hadn’t heard the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s announcement — a casualty of the latest power struggle between the Republican-controlled state legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
“Oh man, this really sucks,” Philadelphia bartender Resa Mueller said upon learning that the future of cocktails to-go and outdoor dining — what Mueller called “the lifeblood for a lot of us in the industry” — may be imperiled.
“We’re still trying to recover from revenue lost over the past 15 months of closures and limited seating,” Mueller said, “and taking away those extra opportunities makes getting back in the black much more challenging.”
Patti Brett, owner of Doobies bar in Graduate Hospital, has relied exclusively on takeout drinks since last May. She only heard about the possibility of their abrupt ending on Monday. “Then 5:30 [Tuesday] afternoon, I got the email, it’s like, ‘Ooooh,’ ” Brett said, letting out a groan. “And now I am closed.”
Uncertainty over the fate of cocktails to-go had been quietly building for a couple of weeks, ever since lawmakers voted to end Wolf’s coronavirus emergency order. They did that quickly after voters gave them the power in a May ballot referendum, but that same emergency order had made last year’s to-go legislation possible.
And with new legislation to make to-go cocktails permanent mired in partisan squabbling in Harrisburg, PLCB’s Tuesday email telling licensees that takeaway drinks must cease contained more bad news: Outdoor dining areas in which licensees had been granted temporary, expedited permission to serve alcohol would no longer be considered licensed.
That translated to mild chaos Wednesday for the patchwork of streeteries, outdoor dining chalets, parking-lot dining rooms, and table-and-chair-strewn alleyways that sprang up in the city and suburbs over the last year.
“No one wants to sit in our new, very expensive structure in the parking space out front of Bar Bombón and not be able to enjoy a margarita. That’s why they come.
Center City restaurateur Nicole Marquis said three seats directly in front of Bar Bombón are permanently licensed to serve alcohol, but the other 45 seats along 18th and Moravian Streets are affected by the change. At Charlie was a sinner in Washington Square West, where bar seating has sprawled onto 13th Street on weekends, the situation is even worse. Marquis’ team was in the process of applying for new permits for its outdoor spaces and determining what guidance to communicate to staff.
The announcement “doesn’t close down our ability to seat people outdoors, but it stops us from being able to sell liquor in these seats,” Marquis said. “No one wants to sit in our new, very expensive structure in the parking space out front of Bar Bombón and not be able to enjoy a margarita. That’s why they come.”
Ben Fileccia, the Philadelphia representative for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, spent Wednesday fielding calls from panicked business owners. He urged operators with temporary outdoor licenses to log onto their PLCB accounts and file anew for a permanent or temporary extension-of-premise license (which costs $220) as soon as possible.
“They will have to get reinspected and all that jazz, but in the meantime, they’ll still be able to operate,” Fileccia said.
Reinspection and renewal may be comparatively minor hurdles, but they add to the obstacle course of fresh rules and regulations that restaurants and bars had to run over the past 15 months. “We really thought that Friday would be the end of having to pay attention to what they need to do,” Fileccia said, referring to Philadelphia’s recently lifted mask mandate and last-call restrictions. “Four days later, everybody’s gotta shift again.”
Even for owners whose operations weren’t massively hindered on Wednesday, the sudden nature of the announcement was universally frustrating and, at times, infuriating.
“How do you send an email out and say, ‘Oh, it’s immediate’? I am appalled,” said Saba Tedla of Booker’s Restaurant in West Philadelphia. “I feel that they have no regard, no respect for businesses and employers.”
Though only 25 of Booker’s seats were affected, Tedla sympathized with those whose sales and staffing decisions hinge on outdoor dining and to-go traffic. “If you have a wound and somebody says, ‘OK, I’m going to hit you and I’m gonna hit you where I know you have a bruise,’ it hurts that much more,” she said.
The state House approved a bill last month to make to-go cocktails permanent, and an amended version of that legislation narrowly passed the state Senate on Wednesday. But it ran into opposition over an amendment that would allow beer distributors, grocery stores, and other retailers to sell ready-to-drink (RTD) spirits-based cocktails — a move that would loosen the state-run system’s grip on liquor sales.
Senate Democrats, joined by two Republicans and the chamber’s independent, voted against the House measure after calling on their colleagues to strip out the RTD provision and keep the popular cocktails-to-go option.
“A yes vote on this bill jeopardizes jobs,” said State Sen. Jim Brewster (D., Allegheny), referencing Pennsylvania’s state liquor stores. “On behalf of the restaurants and all those folks that suffered through the pandemic: If you’re out there right now listening, a yes vote on this bill as written with the amendment will most likely cause you not to get the things that we all want you to have.”
The bill now returns to the House, but it faces an all-but-assured veto as the legislature fast approaches its summer recess.
Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for Wolf, said he does not support the amendment and panned lawmakers for not passing a bill that would allow to-go cocktails for bars and restaurants without adding a new carveout for others.
“There is no justification for the Senate Republicans’ failure to move a clean bill last week beyond their prioritization of certain special interests over common-sense solutions supported by the bar and restaurant industry,” she said.
Chuck Moran, of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, said the corner bars and restaurants his association represents would prefer the bill pass without the RTD amendment. He worried the provision would erode bars’ and restaurants’ business “just like when the beer distributors got the right to sell below a case of beer.”
“That exclusive right to sell six packs — once the taverns and licensed restaurants lost that, they lost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.
Fileccia said the RTD amendment could present an opportunity for restaurants and bars to sell to other vendors. “It could be a Pub & Kitchen old fashioned that they’re selling to beer distributors,” he said. Indeed, bars citywide have started canning cocktails that could easily be sold on a shelf at Acme or elsewhere, sales of which are curtailed indefinitely.
As lawmakers adjourned for the week — leaving progress on the bill until Monday at earliest — business operators like Brett were faced with a hard choice to welcome customers inside again.
“I still feel uncomfortable about having people in there, to be quite honest,” Brett said.
“I expect that this will force some restaurant owners’ hands. If they want to stay afloat, they’ll have no choice but to remove all restrictions inside and fully reopen,” said Friday Saturday Sunday bartender Paul MacDonald. “People should be able to do that in their own time, and they should have a lifeline if they feel like they don’t want to do it yet.”
Friday Saturday Sunday has resumed indoor service, but MacDonald said some wary regulars have continued ordering quarts of the Rittenhouse bar’s takeout cocktails instead. And some customers just enjoy buying a drink to-go and meandering to the park — one of the few enhancements the pandemic brought about.
“Now we know that cocktails to-go isn’t one of the horsemen of the apocalypse,” he said. “I don’t understand why we don’t just keep them.”