This article is a part of our inaugural Next Wave Awards. For the full list of 2021 winners, check out the whole series here.
From outdoor seating to large-scale vaccination rollouts and the return of full-capacity dining, there have been many glimmers of hope over the past few months that the pandemic’s impact on the hospitality industry may be dwindling. And yet, with each beacon of light has arrived a new, unforeseen challenge for bars and restaurants, like vaccine mandates and staff shortages. All of which makes the efforts of Chicago-based bartender Julia Momosé and the grassroots movement Cocktails For Hope more significant — even now, 18 months on.
In Spring 2020, when state mandates shuttered bars and restaurants across the country, many governors signed executive orders allowing bars to sell cocktails to go, but this wasn’t the case in Illinois. To make up for lost revenues, operators like Momosé, creative director and partner at Chicago’s Kumiko, could rely only on full-bottle sales to essentially run glorified liquor stores.
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On one hand, Momosé could tap into an inventory of rare and coveted spirits, and hope that the goodwill of regulars would see them turn to her bar-liquor-store hybrid instead of local retailers. On the other, she knew those supplies were limited. And in the meager profit margins that result from not having bought those bottles in bulk — unlike bonafide liquor stores — she saw only lost revenue from not being able to sell them as cocktails.
So Momosé started Cocktails For Hope, initially a Change.org petition aimed at bringing a similar executive order that had been enacted in states like New York and California. “My hope was an immediate Band-Aid fix,” she told VinePair in May 2020. “Let’s just push this out and make it happen.”
Though ultimately unsuccessful, the petition set a few different wheels in motion. It connected Momosé with Sean O’Leary, a Chicago lawyer with extensive experience in liquor legislation. The petition helped open crucial dialogues with the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, and it also — completely unexpectedly — urged many to reach out to Momosé and report on bars that were flouting the rules and selling to-go cocktails. “If this bar is doing it, why can’t you?” they told her. “You probably won’t get caught.”
Momosé knew this would likely be the case, but it only strengthened her resolve to bring about more permanent legislation. Bars were, in most cases, actively choosing to break the law in order to keep their business alive — risking fines, losing their licenses, and perhaps being shut down permanently. As lose-lose situations go, this one was as clear-cut as they come.
Faced with those facts, Momosé decided that more meaningful change would come via long-term legislation. Even before the pandemic, it was abundantly clear to those in the industry that bars and restaurants might need revenue sources outside of their four walls. Legislative change wasn’t just necessary in 2020, it was long overdue.
“We are standing at this precipice: Do we build a bridge or do we just fall off?” Momosé told VinePair. “Building bridges is really hard but it’s also exciting and it’s fun. The challenge, it brings us all together and makes us so much stronger.”
Through exhaustive campaigning, the Cocktails For Hope movement gained traction. The group started working with State Senator Sara Feigenholtz to write a bill that would pass in both the State Senate and State House. On June 2, 2020, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed that bill into law. One year later, he signed a three-year extension, allowing bars and restaurants to sell cocktails to go until at least 2024.
We’ll never know the true number of bars that survived or continue to survive in Illinois because of this provision, but there are other implications to dissect.
Compared with how events have unfolded in New York, pushing for semi-permanent change clearly turned out to be the better route. And selling to-go cocktails has not only offered an extra revenue stream, it’s sprouted a burgeoning new industry in the state.
Companies like Blue Blazer have emerged, working with bars to help them jump through the many hoops that were woven into the legislation to enable its success. With their help, Illinois’ brightest bartenders can batch and bottle their best-selling cocktails with peace of mind, and make the most of the new provision. That such solutions have cropped up surely builds a stronger foundation for the bill’s chance of actual permanence.
As Momosé’s work blossoms beyond her initial goal, her bridges will stand for at least three more years. Ultimately, her greatest achievement was instilling hope.