The Texas Legislature may do something so unprecedented this session that it’s almost impossible to describe how unprecedented it is — make restaurant cocktails to go, now a temporary fix, permanently legal.
Why unprecedented? Because much of the state was dry well into the 1990s, and it’s still illegal to buy spirits at retail in parts of Oak Cliff. And this is the same state where, in 2018, the state’s liquor store trade association and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission joined forces to stop Walmart from opening liquor stores.
But the new bill, with support from Gov. Greg Abbot, the Texas Restaurant Association and — even more surprising — the state’s liquor stores, stands more than an even chance of approval. If that happens, you’ll be able to order a margarita, martini or Old Fashioned from participating restaurants as long as you order food with the cocktail. And the restaurant can deliver the drink itself, use a delivery service like Favor or offer curbside pickup.
Needless to say, restaurant operators are more than excited.
“Alcohol to-go has been a much needed help,” says Howard Terry, the chief marketing officer for Richardson’s Golden Tree Restaurants, whose concepts include Texadelphia and Fireside Pies.
He estimates that cocktails to go have increased those two chains’ alcohol sales 4 to 5% during the pandemic.
“Sales have been tough since the pandemic, and this is something we would really like to see continue in the future,” he says.
So what made these potential changes possible?
“It really wasn’t all that complicated,” says Joe Monastero of the Texas Restaurant Association, whose organization spearheaded the effort to get the legislation introduced.
“How do we help to provide opportunities for restaurants, and especially since what looked like it was going to be a two-week crisis has turned into 10 months? This was a way to do that.”
In this, a confluence of events, prodded by the pandemic, came together in a way that might not have been possible in years past.
First, the 2019 beer and wine bill: The Legislature approved beer and wine to-go in the previous session, though it was mostly intended to allow craft breweries to sell their product carryout. Monastero says few restaurants took advantage of it because they didn’t see a reason to do so. So when the restaurant association wanted to add cocktails to go, they could do it using the beer and wine bill as a template.
Second, Abbott’s support: The governor, despite his party’s longstanding objections to expanded alcohol sales in Texas, has backed cocktails to go almost from the beginning of the lockdown. He issued an executive order in March allowing restaurants to sell setups — the ingredients needed to make a cocktail, including the spirits, flavorings and so forth.
Then, in July, Abbott amended that order to allow the cocktail itself to be sold. This made it more practical for more restaurants to offer the service, since selling a margarita in a sealed container is a lot easier than selling a bottle of tequila, a bottle of orange liqueur and a cup of lime juice.
Third, and perhaps most important, support from the Texas Package Stores Association, the trade group for the state’s liquor retailers: The group has also traditionally opposed expanded alcohol sales in Texas, but the pandemic is hardly traditional. It issued a statement endorsing the bill, saying that it “is interested in supporting laws that meet the restaurant industry and consumer priorities while always preserving important public safety standards,” but its representatives declined a request for an interview.
Several people familiar with the legislation said two things may have influenced its change of heart. For one, the state’s package stores sell spirits to restaurants, so the retailers would be able to keep some business they might otherwise have lost given how many restaurants are expected to close before the pandemic ends. Then, it didn’t see cocktails to go as significant competition that would cut into its members’ business. It’s one thing to buy a cocktail to drink with a takeout dinner; it’s another to buy a couple of liters of vodka for a round of day drinking, something that can only be done at a retailer.