Last week, New York pulled a popular pandemic-era provision from bar and restaurant menus, as the state said goodbye to cocktails to-go.
Hailed as a lifeline for on-premise operators during the trying times of the pandemic, the coffee cup Margaritas left as abruptly as they arrived. On the afternoon of June 23, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office lifted its state of emergency declaration, canceling all associated executive orders with almost immediate effect. For bar and restaurant owners, the notice translated to just one more day of being able to sell alcohol to-go, and a race against the clock to shift pre-batched bottled drinks and single use containers, which they would soon have no need for.
On-premise operators were swift and vociferous in their response. Many aimed their anger toward the Governor’s office and the unexpected timing of the announcement — not least because the State Liquor Authority had informed bars and restaurants on June 6 that the emergency provision would last until at least July 5, through the lucrative holiday weekend.
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As the dust begins to settle, some industry professionals say indignation should be directed elsewhere. While the timing of Governor Cuomo’s announcement added more than a dash of bitterness, multiple sources point instead to vehement opposition from liquor store owners and that industry’s superior lobbying power as being the real reason cocktails to-go finally left for good.
The expiration of New York’s state of emergency has been a time-bomb ticking over the hospitality industry since its introduction in March 2020, extended on a month-to-month basis. For the past several months, legislators in Albany have worked privately and publicly to see the measure passed into law permanently, as it has been in 15 states including Florida, Georgia, and Texas.
Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz of New York’s District 45 sponsored the most recent version of the bill at the end of May. Laden with concessions, Cymbrowitz’s amended bill attempted to address fears raised by the liquor store industry that cocktails to-go would impact their retail sales, multiple sources told VinePair.
An initial draft that would have seen the provision signed into law permanently was changed to a two-year extension, and then finally one. Under the final draft, bars and restaurants would no longer be able to act as pseudo bottle shops, as they had done for the bulk of the pandemic. Instead, they would be afforded the ability only to serve two servings of alcohol for to-go or delivery along with an entree or meal, meaning no risk of an untimely return of Cuomo chips. Finally, those businesses would not be allowed to use displays that included full bottles of alcohol in order to promote the provision.
Irrespective of the amendments, the state’s Legislature adjourned for its summer recess on June 10 with the bill still unpassed in both Assembly and Senate. “In spite of a lot of compromises, they went home,” says Scott Wexler, executive director of the Empire State Restaurant & Tavern Association, a restaurant lobbying group.
While the lack of advanced notice from the Governor’s office of last week’s announcement deserves criticism, Wexler says the blame for the bar and restaurant industry’s current predicament “rests squarely” on the leadership of New York State’s Assembly and Senate. He attributes their inaction to a classic political mixture comprising equal parts votes and money, topped with the lobbying advantages of liquor store trade organizations.
Beyond the financial advantages of selling packaged liquor versus operating bars and restaurants, Wexler says store owners profit from New York state laws that limit the number of liquor stores within a delimited area. “Every legislator knows their local liquor store owner because there’s only one or two in the neighborhood,” he says. And while the state’s current public campaign finance reporting system makes it “almost impossible” to prove, he’s unequivocal in his belief that liquor store owners “donate profusely” to legislators.
Sensing the impending Doomsday scenario of the state of emergency expiring with legislation still unsigned, Wexler himself urged elected officials to support the temporary extension bill. During communications with the office of Senator James Skoufis, Wexler claims he was told the Senator felt the policy needed to be studied further and viewed within the context of broader alcohol beverage reform. (Another elected official, Senator Brian Benjamin, sponsored an identical bill to Cymbrowitz’s in the Senate.)
Wexler suggested that a one-year extension would offer a sufficient opportunity for closer examination of the bill’s impact, and warned of the very real risk that bars and restaurants would be left high and dry after the Legislature broke for its summer recess. “The answer I got was: ‘OK, so be it,’” says Wexler.
In response to an email request for comment, Senator Skoufis’s office told VinePair: “The Senator is heading off for vacation and unfortunately won’t be able to provide comment, but he appreciates the inquiry.”
Other trade associations echo Wexler in portioning the blame to elected officials. Lisa Hawkins, senior vice president of public affairs for the The Distilled Spirits Council, said it was “sadly ironic” that the first state to adopt this economic relief measure has now shut it down, and added “the legislature should have stepped up.”
On the failure of his colleagues to pass the temporary extension bill, Assemblyman Cymbrowitz told VinePair he is “certainly disappointed” — not only for the loss of potential revenue for bars and restaurants, but also for consumers who still don’t feel ready to resume indoor dining.
Cymbrowitz agrees that the root of this issue was the lobbying efforts of liquor stores. When they received word that the provision could be extended — perhaps even permanently — store owners put together a large advertising campaign warning that continued to-go alcohol sales would result in an increase in public drinking and increased crime, he says.
“The liquor store industry spent a lot of money falsely claiming that the world would come to an end if we allowed alcohol to-go by restaurants,” Cymbrowitz adds. “It scared a lot of elected officials.”
VinePair attempted to contact various liquor store trade associations for their position on the issue, with multiple follow-up emails still unanswered by the Metropolitan Package Store Association and the New York State Liquor Store Association (NYSLSA) at the time of publishing. Previous public statements issued by these groups appeared to indicate they felt it was high-time things return to the pre-2020 normal.
“It was OK with the homemade drinks to-go, but now that Covid is over with they can go back to their normal business,” Stefan Kalogridis, president of the NYSLSA and owner of Colvin Wine Merchants, told the New York Times on Friday, adding: “We can’t sell potato salad and a B.L.T.”
Though the extent to which this reflects the position of all liquor store owners is difficult to gauge, multiple sources were quick to highlight the hypocrisy of such a sentiment given liquor stores’ own freedom to serve pre-mixed bottled, canned, and boxed cocktails.
“The packaged goods stores’ claim that bars and restaurants should stay in their lane puzzles me,” says Sean O’Leary, a Chicago-based liquor attorney who helped introduce cocktails to-go in Illinois. “It is indisputable that packaged goods stores have been helped by the demand for cocktails, specifically RTD products to-go.” (In contrast to New York, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed legislation on June 3 extending the sale of cocktails to-go in the state until 2024.)
Ultimately, there remains a shared belief over one common denominator in the liquor stores’ apparent pursuit to end to-go drinks: “It came down to money,” Cymbrowitz concedes. With off-premise spirits sales surging to 30-year highs in 2020, and bars and restaurants enduring their most difficult period in living memory, this has surely been the hardest concession to swallow.
For his part, Wexler struggles to hold back irritation at the reality. “There’s a lot of anger at the liquor stores,” he says. “These are greedy bastards.”
Theoretically, cocktails to-go are not completely dead in the water in New York and the legislature could return to reconsider the bill at any time before its next session in January 2022. If and when they do, tough opposition from liquor store owners is all-but guaranteed.