Texans Could Use a Good Stiff Drink, but This Round’s on Gov. Abbott, Who’s Not Talking

Wouldn't it be nice to have a professionally made drink with your takeout?
Alison McLean
Wouldn't it be nice to have a professionally made drink with your takeout?
In the decades before the American Revolution, Britain profited greatly from its colonial possessions by not very strictly enforcing its own trade laws that otherwise would have extracted onerous payments from the colonies.

This policy of salutary neglect kept things running smoothly for almost 100 years before war debts and poor leadership caused Britain to strictly enforce its rules. The end result was the loss of most of its colonies.

Salutary neglect is often a way to keep society functioning when the political environment makes it hard to change the rules on the printed page. There may not be political will to legalize marijuana, but cops can always look the other way.

It’s been a little more than a week of complete confusion in the restaurant industry about where to-go cocktails stand, along with frustration with the TABC’s inexplicable officiousness.

I have heard from many of you, both operators and customers, who assure me there are still good to-go margaritas and other mixed drinks being offered. We’re still not narcs, so we’re still not mentioning where. Recall that the issue is TABC’s insistence that all alcohol sold using a mixed beverage license be in the original packaging sealed by the manufacturer.

And the frustrating part is that TABC really seems to have implemented an administrative rule directly contradicting the governor’s statement from the week before last. I have heard from operators who are complying with the TABC’s guidance that the rule directly led to layoffs of staff.

So I thought I’d ask TABC for an update on enforcement and whether they had any discussion of applying a little salutary neglect to the manufacturer-sealed rule. Lightning-fast response, again, from PIO Chris Porter.

Any change to the waiver would need to come from the Office of the Governor. His Communications office should be able to provide an update on that front.

TABC’s auditors have been responding to complaints about businesses selling alcohol in violation of the waiver’s guidelines. Our practice is to educate and inform permittees about the waiver guidelines regarding sealed containers. To date, we’ve taken no administrative action other than an informal warning.

A bit of background on how TABC works: We have two divisions, Enforcement and Audit, who enforce the public safety and regulatory guidelines of the Alcoholic Beverage Code, respectively. Our Enforcement agents are primarily employed upholding the public safety provisions of the Code and investigate any violations which endanger public safety, such as sales of alcohol to minors or intoxicated customers. The Audit division is responsible for upholding the regulatory provisions, such as the requirements that each permittee sell alcohol only as allowed under their permit.

In the case of the waiver, the Audit division is responsible for ensuring compliance with the waiver order, while the Enforcement agents continue their public safety duties as they did prior to the disaster declaration. So, enforcing the manufacturer-sealed container requirement doesn’t impact TABC’s public safety operations.

I could parse this a couple of different ways, but I think what Porter is saying is that TABC is issuing warnings. I can’t tell if he’s saying they’re not doing that much enforcement. What he definitely is not doing is backing off the manufacturer-sealed rule. I have heard from two operators that they have been warned by TABC not to serve drinks they mix at the restaurant.

I also reached out to District 108 state Rep. Morgan Meyer, who was almost as responsive as TABC. Since the TABC has been pointing fingers at the governor and the Texas Legislature, it seemed fair to give Meyer a chance to weigh in; he represents the largest share of the city’s restaurants and bars.

We are truly in uncharted territory, doing our very best to keep citizens safe while protecting jobs and our economy as much as possible. To this end, the decision was made to allow alcohol sales with take-away food orders, something that I strongly support because not only does it allow our restaurants to continue serving customers and provide jobs, but it also allows our citizens some small sense of normalcy.

In my opinion, our restaurants should be able to sell any beverage on their menu to a to-go customer —  the packaging should not be a factor in deciding what can be sold. I know many restaurants have addressed this issue by creating drink “kits,” but we shouldn’t be making it this hard, and I’m committed to keep working on this issue with the TABC and other state leaders to make it easier for restaurants and bars.  

click to enlarge Ah, normalcy, when we sat across a bar from an expert who supplied great beverages to us. - ALISON MCLEAN
Ah, normalcy, when we sat across a bar from an expert who supplied great beverages to us.
Alison McLean
It seems Meyer reads the governor’s original statement the same way I do. And now that leaves just one entity that remains unresponsive: Gov. Greg Abbott’s office.

You’ll be glad to hear that March 26, someone finally answered the phone there and got my message to the communications office. A very pleasant woman called me back, and after I explained the issue to her, she asked for me to submit written questions for a response, which I promptly did.

I included, of course, an inquiry about what the governor meant to have happen. I also alerted both TABC and Abbott's office that I had ordered copies of their communications under the Public Information Act.

As of the publishing time of this article, there has been no response from Abbott. I’m taking no offense because I see in the coverage from other outlets that no one else has heard from him either.

It could easily be argued that Abbott has a lot on his plate right now, and maybe this isn’t a priority. But what I’m hearing from people who know is that the TABC rule is putting Texans out of work. With the Legislature out of session, Abbott is the only person who can clear this up. It would be nice to hear from him.

I’m still operating on the theory that TABC has gone rogue, but that’s also the kind of thing I’m prone to believe. Assuming no one fights me too hard on the information requests for the communications between Abbott and TABC, I’ll report back soon on how we got into this mess.