Restaurants have always relied on their ambiance and service staff to drive alcohol sales. Now, they’re dependent solely on their to-go offerings, hoping it will be enough to tip the scales profitably in their favor. The day after Mayor Muriel Bowserordered restaurants and bars to shut down all dine-in operations, the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation allowing the temporary ability for restaurants and bars to sell alcohol to-go—accompanied by at least one food item.
For those who had existing licenses for on-premise alcohol sales, the process was easy. “All I had to do was locate my [alcohol] license number and the next day we started selling beer and wine and advertising it on our social media channels,” says Chaia Tacos co-founder Bettina Stern.
Within a day of applying, Stern was selling Chaia’s on-tap margaritas in mason jars bought on the fly from her neighborhood hardware store. Almost immediately, Stern saw a spike in beverage orders. They currently account for 21 percent of Chaia’s to-go sales. Before COVID-19, Chaia’s alcohol made up less than 5 percent of the fast-casual restaurant’s total sales. Chaia has two locations. One in Georgetown and one in Mount Vernon Triangle.
While some operators like Stern have seen an increase in alcohol sales, most agree they cannot sustain their businesses on to-go sales alone. There are new operational costs, less opportunities to establish personal connections with customers, and fewer sales overall. The ability to sell carryout alcohol may not be a panacea, but it holds enough promise for operators to want the legislation to become permanent. “As an industry that will probably be one of, if not the, last to come back to real life, we need whatever we can get. Whatever lifeline you can throw us,” Stern says.
Before the pandemic, Hong Kong-inspired eatery Tiger Fork was seeing anywhere from 48 percent to 50 percent of their sales coming from drinks. The restaurant’s general manager, Glenn Hanbury, had a gut feeling that the city would permit to-go alcohol sales so he quickly turned to sister restaurant, Calico, also in Blagden Alley in Shaw. Calico produces drink pouches that travel well. Tiger Fork also plans to release its own branded cocktail bottles. Since March, Tiger Fork’s beverage orders have been coming in waves with the numbers holding steady.
Ezequiel Vazquez-Ger, co-owner and managing partner of 14th Street NW Latin restaurant Seven Reasons, says to-go sales started slow but accelerated as soon as they added cocktails. “I can tell you the first day of [food] delivery was very, very low,” Vazquez-Ger reveals. “The second day was a little better, the third day was better, and that first Friday when we announced cocktails was crazy.”
On their first day of selling alcohol to-go, Seven Reasons experienced such a surge of orders between 6 and 6:30 p.m. that the system shut down. Vazquez-Ger says they called customers, apologized, and asked them to place orders for the next day.
While 70 percent of all to-go orders from Seven Reasons include alcohol, the restaurant has seen a drop in overall beverage sales. Prior to the pandemic, their sales were roughly 60 percent food and 40 percent alcohol. Now, alcohol sales total about 20 percent. “Maybe 20 percent doesn’t seem like a lot in gross terms,” Vazquez-Ger says, “but maybe the fact that you are offering [alcohol] is an extra incentive for people to place the food order.”
Coconut Club near Union Market has constantly reinvented itself throughout the pandemic. From operating as a makeshift grocery store to their new sandwich shop, Crush Subbies, the restaurant continues to do whatever they can to bring in cash. Selling their island inspired cocktails to-go helps. “It’s a huge difference for a check for dinner without alcohol and a check for dinner with alcohol,” says managing partner Emily Cipes. Coconut Club’s beverages accounted for 70 percent of their total sales before COVID-19. Now, it’s closer to 21 percent but, as Cipes says, “It’s worth it.”
Selling alcohol isn’t as simple as transitioning the existing menu to a delivery format. “Everything kind of changed in terms of what your costs were going to be,” explains Nina May’s co-owner and Executive Chef Colin McClimans. He has to account for new expenses like to-go containers and the fact that customers aren’t paying for a full-service experience.
Nina May in Logan Circle was operating on 70 percent food sales and 30 percent beverage sales before the restaurant transitioned to carryout on March 15. Their sales ratio has stayed consistent over the past two months thanks to a revised beverage program spearheaded by Nina May’s co-owner and general manager Danilo Simic. “We wanted to make sure we had a good showing as a to-go program,” McClimans continues.
Nina May launched a contactless curbside bar last Saturday, complete with rules for picking up while maintaining social distancing. The bar sells popcorn for 50 cents to comply with the food requirement. On the first day alone, the restaurant sold about 70 cocktails, causing a spike in overall beverage sales for the week. The Nina May team has decided to make it a daily fixture staffed by two previously laid off employees.
Pizzeria Paradisois selling beer and wine to-go from its five area locations but, unlike restaurants selling cocktails, they’ve seen a sharper decline in alcohol sales. “It’s just more difficult for us to charge what we would normally charge when we’re doing a full-service experience,” explains operations director Matt McQuilkin. “If we’re charging what we normally charge, you’d be looking at a $42 six pack, which is just not reasonable when you’re competing in a carryout setting with convenience stores or liquor stores.” Despite not making any profit from alcohol sales, the legislation is helping the restaurant to lose less money overall during the pandemic, according to McQuilkin.
As the District begins to outline a reopeningplan, bars and restaurants don’t anticipate a return to normal for at least one or two years. Operators are hoping the D.C. Council makes to-go alcohol sales a permanent revenue stream. “Being at 50 percent capacity is going to be a challenge to still be profitable,” McQuilkin says. “Any expansion of doing alcohol to-go is definitely necessary for us.”
In an email obtained by City Paper, the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration includes a provision in their Budget Support Act that permanently allows alcohol for takeout and delivery for any restaurant that has an on-premise license. The proposal is sure to be met by opposition from liquor store giants, some of whom have reportedly already hired lobbyists despite seeing a massive jump in their own sales during the pandemic.
“Our industry is an industry that has been devastated by this pandemic,” says Restaurant Association for Metropolitan Washington CEO Kathy Hollinger. “I can’t imagine that that [any] pushback [will be] any stronger or weightier than the burden that we are dealing with right now.”