It was early on a recent Tuesday night, but business was relatively brisk at dp, An American Brasserie — a small, upscale bar and restaurant just down the hill from the state Capitol building in Albany.
A delivery driver approached and picked up a takeout order, grabbing a pair of brown paper bags and signing a receipt before hitting the road.
If Josh Turo had his way, that order would have included a pair of cocktails, as well – the way it would have during the first 15 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Every to-go order had anywhere from two to maybe six cocktails, minimum on every single order,” said Turo, the restaurant’s manager and sommelier. “So that can end up adding a lot to a business.”
Restaurants and bars across New York have spent much of the last eight months pleading with lawmakers and state officials to reinstate to-go drink options, which provided a much-needed financial boost to the industry during the darkest days of the pandemic. But they’ve run into opposition from a small but powerful force: Liquor stores, the mostly mom-and-pop shops across the state that have banded together in Albany to protect their interests. The battle between liquor stores and restaurants is among the more contentious fights brewing this legislative session.
Liquor store owners joined forces about a decade ago to block the sale of wine in grocery stores, warding off a vigorous push by major grocers. And now, store owners have become the biggest obstacle to permanently legalizing to-go cocktails – though they say they’re open to negotiation.
“We’re glad to sit down and work with the restaurants, the taverns and the legislators to work out a deal,” said Stefan Kalogridis, president of the New York State Liquor Store Association, a trade group.
Why liquor stores got involved
Kalogridis owns Colvin Wine Merchants, a small wine-and-liquor shop in a shopping plaza on one of Albany’s main drags.
He said liquor stores generally didn’t have an issue when then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an order allowing bars and restaurants to offer alcoholic beverages with takeout orders back in March 2020. It was the earliest days of the pandemic, after all, and indoor dining was shut down. Takeout orders were all restaurants had to survive.
But it wasn’t long until restaurants started pushing the limits, at least from Kalogridis’ perspective. They began offering full bottles of wine or liquor as part of meal packages rather than just single-serve drinks. And that was when the liquor stores decided to step in, claiming the rules were being exploited.
“They were becoming a liquor store, and that’s not fair to us if they become a liquor store,” he said.
New York stopped allowing restaurants to offer to-go drinks in June 2021, when Cuomo’s emergency powers expired. Bar and restaurant organizations pushed lawmakers to make it permanent, but the Legislature ended its annual session without taking action.
“Last year, when drinks to-go was abruptly ended, it was a financial blow to the restaurant industry,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, which represents bars and restaurants.
It was a win for liquor stores, who had raised a host of issues with state lawmakers – everything from concerns about restaurants infringing on their turf, to the potential for increased drunk driving, to quality of life fears.
“I think that the liquor store lobby was able to persuade legislators using questionable claims — false assertions that extension of this policy, while helpful to restaurants, would be harmful to liquor stores,” said Scott Wexler, executive director of the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association. “And the Legislature is typically very responsive to concerns by small business owners.”