The allegedly business-friendly, freedom-minded inclinations of the Texan government fall apart pretty fast when you take stock of our state’s alcohol regulations, a bizarrely complex assortment of laws dating back to Prohibition and informed by, no joke, the 1930s public policy research of a eugenicist think tank.
We got a nice reminder of these laws and their general backwards-assedness earlier this month, when Gov. Greg Abbott announced the state would waive certain alcohol regulations to support the restaurant industry during the ongoing economic collapse facing local businesses due to closures and other restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic. The modifications we’re interested in were described thusly:
Governor Greg Abbott today issued a waiver that will allow restaurants to deliver alcoholic beverages with food purchases to patrons, including beer, wine, and mixed drinks.
— Office of the Texas Governor, March 18, 2020
What the Governor’s trying to do here was an expansion of what’s already permitted in the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission code, Section 28.1001 to be exact. It’s not well-understood, and few restaurants bothered with it before now because of its inconvenience, but the law already allowed Texan businesses with a mixed beverage permit to sell beer, wine, and spirits (up to 375ml in a manufacturer-sealed bottle) along with an order of freshly prepared food for delivery, a provision added to the code so companies like Uber Eats and Favor could deliver drinks to their customers with meals. The modification Gov. Abbott announced was intended to allow this same provision, but for pickup/to go orders, rather than just delivery.
We’ve had to temporarily suspend the sale of Pluckers cocktails. Although we love the overwhelming response, it’s come to our attention that we need to work out some issues before we can sell your favorite drinks. Rest assured, we’re looking for a quick solution.
— Pluckers Wing Bar (@Pluckers) March 26, 2020
Beloved local wing chain Pluckers was one of the casualties of the confusion over takeout cocktails, and briefly announced it was selling gallons of its own drinks for pickup and delivery before discovering this was still illegal under state law.
But apparent communication breakdown between the Governor’s office and TABC has instead created a disaster. The language of Gov. Abbott’s press release, first of all, doesn’t even mention to go orders, just delivery — but even more importantly, the release says “beer, wine, and mixed drinks.” The use of that term “mixed drinks” seemed to distract a lot of people from the fact that the release didn’t actually say anything about pickup orders, and restaurants around the state started selling takeout cocktails, as you might expect from businesses desperate to find alternate revenue streams during this pandemic’s unprecedented hardship.
But when the TABC released its own clarification of this regulatory change one day later, the agency instead explained it like this:
“Eligible restaurants may allow pick-up or deliver any number of beers, ales, wines, and/or distilled spirits to their customers ONLY WHEN:
(1) Accompanied by a food order that was prepared on the business’s premises;
(2) The alcohol is delivered in the original container that was sealed by the manufacturer of the beverage; and
(3) All distilled spirits are delivered in a manufacturer-sealed container that is 375 milliliters or less.”
— Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, March 19, 2020
So, the actual change here is that you can take that booze to go yourself, rather than getting it delivered by Favor or whoever — but the hard liquor still has to be manufacturer-sealed in a bottle. That means any “mixed drink” you can order from a restaurant will not actually be mixed, instead delivered in the form of a generally more-expensive, larger-volume “cocktail kit.”
As Philip Kingston explained in the Dallas Observer earlier this week, this means it doesn’t really help struggling business owners at all, since to comply with these regulations they have to specifically purchase sealed containers of liquor under 375ml rather than mixing drinks for pickup or delivery using their existing bar stock — unlike the takeout cocktails offered during the crisis in cities like New York and Phoenix.
“I can’t make money this way,” says Simon Madera, owner and operator of local Austin chain Taco Flats. “We can’t order more inventory with money we’re not making.” If the state instead allowed the sale of cocktails mixed on-premises, he says, his 58 employees across three locations would be breathing easier.
“Coronavirus-related measures have crippled Austin’s economy, and we have an opportunity to throw a lifeline to restaurants for additional revenue, which means they could borrow less, close less frequently, and fire fewer people,” says Austin lawyer Kareem Hajjar, who represents many bars and restaurants around the state.
This week, Hajjar started Facebook and Instagram pages called Margs For Life, intended to generate support for lobbying Gov. Abbott and the TABC to alter state code and allow alcohol to also be sold for pickup or delivery in sealed containers — but sealed by the restaurant or bar, rather than just the manufacturer, allowing the sale of cocktails mixed to order by bartenders at these spots.
This would allow local businesses to make money off the liquor, beer, and wine currently sitting unsold on their bars, and provide work for bartenders currently out of a job. According to Hajjar, unless the state offers this sort of relief to business owners and service workers, the entire industry will be “crippled” to the point that he believes well over 50 percent of local bars and restaurants will likely never reopen.
These closures, he says, are just the most visible failures, but the ripple effect will be enormous and have a dramatic effect on the lives of millions of Texans — employees and owners of restaurants and bars will suffer, but so will the employees and owners of all their suppliers, vendors, distillers, brewers, wineries, landlords, banks, event promoters, sign manufacturers, third-party delivery workers, and literally everyone else doing business within the industry.
To be honest, the move seems like a no-brainer. Texas already allows alcohol delivery, just a very goofy version of it that unfairly benefits big beverage companies rather than individual restaurant and bar owners. The craft beer industry spent years fighting similarly arbitrary state restrictions against selling packaged beer to go at breweries, and the arguments in favor of cocktails to go feel equally clear-headed — we’re still checking IDs and only selling alcohol to people allowed to buy it, so why are we insisting on making it harder for people to legally purchase the things they like? We’d really like our favorite cocktail bars and Tex-Mex joints to keep their lights on.
If you’d like to support the local service industry with cocktail deliveries during the coronavirus pandemic, consider joining the Margs for Life Facebook group and promoting the campaign to your friends on social media — we believe at TOWERS.net that this is absolutely the right move to help Austin businesses in these strange times.