When the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) announced in May that it would temporarily allow premixed cocktails to go, it was a lifeline for bartenders and restaurateurs struggling to make ends meet in COVID-19 lockdown.
“I just started bottling shit,” says bar manager Jesse Tiamson of Beacon Hill Filipino restaurant Musang. “I think that was the general consensus with everybody… we were just like, let’s get the product out, let’s sell some shit, because we can make some money.”
At the time, restaurants were still completely closed for dine-in services under Washington’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, so the takeout cocktails were a welcome boost for the bar business. Travis Rosenthal, who owns both the waterfront restaurant Agua Verde and tropical bar Rumba, notes his businesses sold more than 2,000 canned cocktails over the summer, which he says “will help us get through the slower, cold, wet winter months.”
But the new offerings also have severe limitations. These are set amounts of craft cocktails usually ordered through an online platform, not an open-ended number of highballs during an all-night hangout session. There are no customizations or bartender recommendations.
“A lot of what you’re selling is hospitality,” explains Sara Rosales, owner of West Seattle barbecue joint Lady Jaye, referring to standard bar service. Even with three cocktails in one takeout bottle, $14 is “a hard sell when you don’t have a bartender in front of you.”
Still, says Rosales, “it definitely would have been more difficult to keep afloat if we didn’t have them.”
For some bars, it’s not enough. Jamie Boudreau, owner of renowned Capitol Hill cocktail bar Canon, says the bar is losing “thousands every week” just staying open for takeout, and will have to shut down if delivery doesn’t pick up the slack.
“Based on average to-go sales we only need 25 orders a day to break even, which is all we’re trying to do,” says Boudreau. “Our first day we had 23, and then [we] never broke 15.” (After this piece was published, Boudreau made the decision to close down Canon temporarily until 2021.)
While cocktails are a welcome addition to takeout menus, there’s a bigger problem that drinks can’t solve: the safety nets designed to support small restaurants are crumbling.
“We’re in this perfect eye of the storm, as it were, in that [Paycheck Protection Program money] is drying up,” says Jessica Tousignant, executive director of local restaurant and bar advocacy coalition Seattle Restaurants United (SRU). “We’re headed toward winter and there is no answer about whether the RESTAURANTS Act is going to be pushed forward and approved anytime soon.”
After we spoke with Tousignant, President Donald Trump announced he’d be shutting down stimulus negotiations until after the November election, although he then quickly reversed that position, and there are signs that a smaller stimulus package could still be in the works. But what that billmay look like, or how it would help bars or the hospitality industry in general, is still very much unclear.
Insurance claims are coming up empty, too: After the 2002–2003 SARS outbreak, insurance companies quietly added viruses as exceptions in many business policies. An investigation by the Washington Office of the Insurance Commissioner found that the vast majority of policies in the state exclude pandemic claims. It’s not sexy, but insurance is one of the systems designed to keep the rent paid. Since the payments are not coming, the back rent is starting to pile up.
“It’s pretty dire circumstances,” says Tousignant. “We’ve even had eviction notices posted to business owners. And so thank god we have to-go cocktails as some kind of revenue, but it’s not going to be enough to keep things going for much longer.”
Despite the limitations, to-go cocktails provide an immediate, tangible way to keep business up and customers happy. But right now, they’re set to expire 30 days into Phase 4, which isn’t a lot of recovery time for an industry so gutted by the pandemic.
Job losses are staggering for restaurant workers. Nearly every bartender in the state lost their job by May. According to economist Anneliese Vance-Sherman from Washington’s Employment Security Department, recent jobs data suggests “more than half have returned to work [since then], but there are still more than 2,000 out of work bartenders living in King County.” Meanwhile, “leisure and hospitality” jobs overall, which include bar and restaurant workers, have dropped 28 percent statewide since January, with more than three times the losses of any other industry, according to the Washington State Department of Commerce. It’s not clear when, if ever, those jobs will come back.
“When life gets ‘back to normal,’ restaurants and bars will still be hurting as people will still be wary about being in packed rooms,” Boudreau says. “If [cocktails to go] aren’t allowed beyond 30 days past Phase 4, you will see many more permanent closures occur.”
“I don’t see how it is much different than a bottle of wine or growler of beer to go,” Rosenthal says of the takeout cocktail rule. “Restaurants and bars are going to need all the help we can get, even after the pandemic.”
The program could, theoretically, be extended. Gov. Jay Inslee’s press secretary, Mike Faulk, confirms that the governor’s office has been in conversations about “what that could [or] should look like.”
Public safety impacts are a big factor in whether to extend the relaxed regulation. Brian Smith, WSLCB communications director, notes that DUIs were of particular concern to local lawmakers, law enforcement agencies, and advocacy groups. But the Washington State Patrol says it has made about 2,000 fewer DUI arrests, a decrease of more than 25 percent, in the past six months compared to the same time period in 2019.
“We are aware that many of the business owners will want to have them,” Smith says of takeout cocktails. “I’m sure there will be [state legislation] to be able to continue some of this.”
Barring federal action, the Washington State Legislature is one of the biggest potential lifelines for the future of the restaurant industry. SRU is working with restaurant advocacy organization Thirst Group to draft legislation that would help small businesses, especially bars and restaurants, recover some funds from their insurers. Thirst has helped introduce similar bills in other states.
But liquor policy in Washington moves notoriously slowly. The state still had a Prohibition-era monopoly on liquor stores, which were designed as a temperance measure, until 2012 — and it took multiple ballot initiatives to get there. Puzzlingly, none of the spirits sold in those stores could be distilled in Washington at all until 2008. While the state has gotten a little more liberal in recent years, the WSLCB tends to err on the conservative side, as in 2018 when it adjusted cannabis enforcement to effectively ban gummies.
The state’s regular legislative session doesn’t even start until January — so even if Washington lawmakers were motivated to make changes, they literally can’t come fast enough for struggling establishments as patio season wanes.
“Knowing that the cold months are coming up, we’re just like: ‘What the hell are we going to do next?’” Tiamson says. “To-go cocktails are part of that. To-go food is a part of that … but it’s not enough to keep the lights on.”