Over the past two years, you’ve probably seen the Capri Sun-like adult drink packets filled with neon beverages, or the branded glass jars of margaritas, with carefully designed instruction labels affixed to them.
A new state law that goes into effect Jan. 1 officially makes such to-go cocktails, greenlit during the pandemic, into a legal, permanent offering for restaurants with an alcohol license.
The new law, SB 389, will be in effect for the next five years. It requires customers to buy a full meal, prepared on the premises, to accompany any cocktails sold to-go. Customers must pick up their to-go cocktails or single-serving wine in person, ending the ability to order a cocktail through a third-party delivery app. Draught beers cannot be sold to-go at all. (Beer and wine in their original sealed packaging can still be sold for pickup or delivery, much as they could before the pandemic.)
And, while legalization of to-go cocktails were thought to be a welcome change for bar keepers and restaurateurs alike, the strict rules surrounding the new legislation diminish its impact.
“This is clearly much more restrictive than many of us expected,” said Laurie Thomas, director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. “And it really cuts the bars out if they don’t have a meal program.”
Thomas said she testified in support of early versions of the law, which were more permissive. She worries that the final version, which requires the purchase of a “bona fide meal” with to-go alcohol and limits the way drinks can be sold, will cause some businesses, such as bars, to suffer financially.
“It’s awful for bars,” said president of the SF Bar Owner Alliance Ben Bleiman, who also owns Teeth bar at Mission at 19th Street. “It’s really sad, and I don’t know why they cut us out, basically, but it actually makes life worse for us, not better.”
Bleiman said it was “a bunch of bullshit” that a law supposedly intended to make selling cocktails easier would cut out the very places that make and specialize in craft cocktails.
The new law is more restrictive than the emergency pandemic provisions that went into effect in March, 2020, that allowed businesses to sell beer, wine, and mixed drinks for pickup or delivery, so long as the container had a lid and the drink was sold with food. The “food” part was open to loose interpretation.
This time, a list of regulations outlines what a “meal” constitutes. According to the Alcohol Beverage Control’s definition, it must have “a sufficient quantity that it would constitute a main course in a multiple-course dining experience”: Chicken wings, packaged sandwiches and flautas, for example, don’t count.
“I think it’s a ridiculous restriction. You can go to a liquor store and buy a bottle of gin and a bottle of tonic and walk outside and open it and drink it,” said Debi Cohn, who owns Asiento at Bryant and 21st streets.
Asiento is primarily a bar, but it also has a food license, so Cohn isn’t too worried about her business being impacted. Sales of their jarred cocktails are virtually nonexistent nowadays, she said, as her customers have mostly returned to in-person dining. And Cohn only ever sold to-go cocktails in person.
But, in any case, Cohn said the effort is misguided.
“I think the emphasis is in the wrong place,” Cohn said. “It’s not going to increase the casual drinker; the areas where we have problems with drinking on the street, those people are not normally drinking high-end cocktails.”
Tacolicious’ Korey Reynolds, who oversees all four of the restaurant’s Bay Area locations, said he wasn’t even aware of the new law going into effect on Saturday. To-go cocktails were “very popular” during the pandemic, he said, with customers even requesting drinks not on their menu.
Reynolds said the loss of cocktail deliveries would be “incredibly detrimental” for business and employees.
“Being able to offer to-go cocktails lends us an opportunity to staff additional people and gives us an opportunity to ensure that families are taken care of … if there is any sort of pullback on that, that impacts not just businesses, but all of the people who work for those businesses as well,” he said.
And, people have grown accustomed to “the freedom of being able to order cocktails to go, Reynolds said. “You know, particularly with some of our signature drinks, it is not necessarily something you can just whip up at home.”
Chloe Miller, who manages Junior, a cocktail bar at 24th and Utah streets, partnered with nearby restaurants to serve food along with drinks, after a 10-month closure in 2020. Miller said the new law is concerning as a new variant of Covid-19 sweeps across San Francisco. “The cocktails to-go add another element for people who don’t feel quite comfortable coming out and sitting at a bar yet.”
Thomas, from the restaurant association, said this law “was designed with good intent,” and a compromise between the liberal pandemic regulations and a post-pandemic climate.
Felipe Lopez, a spokesman for State Senator Bill Dodd, (D-Napa) who sponsored SB-389, said the senator “would have loved to go further and keep, if not expand, what’s currently allowed under the pandemic,” but the bill met pushback from the Assembly and amended.
In the end, he said, “we felt like making permanent some of the privileges was better than nothing.”