Let us serve cocktails to-go even after pandemic ends, restaurant owners say

One local legislator says a bill is in the works in the Ohio General Assembly that would remove ‘temporary’ designation

Some Dayton-area restaurant and pub owners want to make their temporary permission to serve high-proof cocktails and other alcoholic drinks for carryout and delivery to be made permanent, and one local legislator says he fully supports the idea.

In early April, three weeks after they were ordered to shut down their dining rooms and bars, owners of Ohio restaurants and pubs that have full liquor licenses were granted temporary “emergency” permission to sell full-proof cocktails and other alcohol “to go,” with a limit of two drinks per meal.

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Now, a movement to make that temporary permission permanent appears to be gaining traction. Some legislators, including State Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, are warming to the idea of permanently lifting the restriction against restaurants delivering full-proof cocktails.

Antani told this news outlet Wednesday, May 13, that there’s a bill in the works in the Ohio General Assembly to make the temporary to-go alcohol exemption a permanent part of Ohio law — and he intends to sign on as a co-sponsor.

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“Restaurants across the Dayton region are struggling because of the virus,” Antani said. “Making to-go alcoholic drinks permanent is one way to help them with the recovery.”

Shanon Morgan, president of the Miami Valley Restaurant Association, agrees.

“I'm hoping the order stays in place to allow restaurants to bring in as much revenue as possible — they certainly need it,” Morgan said.

Restaurants lost a significant proportion of their sales when all dine-in and bar service was ordered to shut down March 15. Restaurants generally make a higher profit margin on each cocktail, glass of wine and beer they serve than they do on each meal consumed in their dining room. Even those restaurants that are selling carryout and delivery meals saw alcohol revenues evaporate after March 15, although some could sell packaged beer and wine and carryout.

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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced April 7 that the Ohio Liquor Control Commission had passed an emergency rule to allow establishments with an existing on-premises liquor permit to sell and deliver alcohol, including high-proof liquor, for consumption at diners’ homes. Under the rule, customers who are 21 and over can purchase two prepackaged drinks per meal.

The exemption was scheduled to expire at the end of four months, meaning it will disappear in August, unless the liquor control board extends it — or unless the Ohio General Assembly changes state law.

“If restrictions such as this can be suspended — and the public trusted to act responsibly during an emergency — why not all the time?” said Glen Brailey, founder and owner of Spinoza’s Pizza in the Mall at Fairfield Commons in Beavercreek.

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“One of the biggest challenges we all face moving forward is not being able to plan for our near-term and long-term future,” Brailey said. “This is especially true for restaurants as we navigate the ever-changing restrictions and protocols imposed on us. Spinoza's was an experience-driven, dine-in, full-service restaurant, and now we need to pivot into an operation more focused on takeout and delivery. Making alcohol sales to-go a permanent change in the law would certainly help us recuperate some of our lost sales.”

The issue is not unique to Ohio. Rusty Taco, a Texas-based Mexican restaurant chain that has three Dayton-area locations, on Wednesday launched what it called a “To-Go Margs Forever” campaign that includes a petition drive and a request to call, email or Tweet local and state officials to make temporary alcohol delivery permanent in six states, including Ohio.

"Help us get the states to speed up putting permanent legislation in place to allow businesses with mixed-drink permits to serve to-go alcohol to you," Rusty Taco officials said in a release.

John Slaughenhaupt, co-owner of Rusty Taco’s Dayton-area franchisee, ThreeWitt Enterprises Inc., said the campaign “makes a lot of sense, and we support it 100%. We have pushed this initiative on our social-media sites and will continue to keep it as a focus.”

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Steve Tieber, owner of the Dublin Pub in Dayton’s Oregon District, sees the move as a potential small step toward leveling the playing field.

“I am 100% for the health and safety of our community but there is an uneven scale of businesses that can prosper versus businesses that are struggling to survive and/or may go out of business,” Tieber said. “Liquor stores and grocery stores are experiencing liquor and beer sales growth of 400% on average.”

The restaurant industry, Tieber said, “has been shut down completely, with little or no chance of income opportunities short of carryout and delivery. There are some looming issues in the future for our industry. More than ever we need to embrace the future of our small businesses and their ability to sell their products.”

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“If there are laws that are in place that prohibit our businesses from prospering based on the fact that they are just old laws and that’s the way they’ve always been, I believe it’s time for change.”

Tieber pointed out that most restaurants can legally sell beer for carryout.

“Simply put, the difference between selling carryout beer versus cocktails is a moot point. Not only should there be no discussion about this, it should be a law immediately.”

The two legislators that Antani identified as the main sponsors of the bill — State Rep. D.J. Swearingen, R-Huron, and State Rep. Jeff LaRe, R-Violet Twp. in Fairfield County — indicated in a joint statement to this news outlet Wednesday night that their proposal has not been finalized.

“Rep Swearingen and I are working on a bill to assist restaurants, bars, breweries and wineries recover from the economic hardships they've suffered from the current pandemic,” LaRe wrote in an email. “While we want to move quickly with this legislation, we also want to make certain that we leave no stone unturned. More information to follow in the coming days."

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