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California Can Now Sell Cocktails To Go, but Only With Food

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Last night, California’s Alcoholic Beverage Control eased alcohol delivery restrictions from restaurants

EP & LP cocktail
EP & LP cocktail
Caroline Pardilla

California’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), the governing body that oversees licensing for alcohol at restaurants and bars statewide, undertook some serious measures last night in response to the current novel coronavirus pandemic. The ABC eased its rules around alcohol delivery, making it far easier for restaurants to sell beer, wine, and pre-mixed drinks/cocktails for pick-up or delivery throughout the state.

Prior to this change, pre-made cocktails like the four-person margarita mix from Melrose Umbrella Company would’ve been against the law, though more and more restaurants and shops had been selling their alcohol to go under the delivery and takeout mandate put in place statewide, as a way to try to stay in business.

What’s required under the new rules is a current ABC license and containers with a secure lid or cap for the alcohol. Alcohol also must be sold with food, all from the same establishment. ABC also lifted its ban on alcohol sold at drive-through windows, and noted that no deliveries are allowed from 2 a.m. until 6 a.m. Distilleries can even jump in with curbside pickups and delivery, but must adhere to the same state mandated maximum of 2.25 liters per consumer per day.

This shift is a potential beacon of relief for restaurants with an ABC license. Alcohol sales can comprise up to 30 percent of restaurant revenue.

As with anything, the details are all in the fine print. Not all licenses are allowed to sell distilled spirits, and must stick to wine or beer for delivery. The restaurant must clearly post open-container warnings in the restaurant and online for both the delivery driver and the customer.

Restaurants delivering booze with food is a huge shift for the ABC, who are also allowing payment collection for the alcohol upon delivery. Most restaurateurs who spoke with Eater are still reeling from what experts say will be the most devastating crisis this industry has ever faced, and many had yet to parse the ABC’s dense prose. The reaction to these changes is happening statewide.

Oakland dive bar Eli’s Mile High Club has been closed since the Bay Area issued its shelter-in-place order early this week. But at the news that restrictions on liquor delivery had relaxed, co-owner Billy Agan told Eater SF that he started getting “a bunch of weird ideas,” including personal delivery of lidded cocktails to patrons with food cooked at the bar’s kitchen by his business partner.

Chef Mourad Lahlou — a 2020 Beard contender for best chef in California for his work at San Francisco fine dining spots Mourad and Aziza — said that many patrons have already “inquired about wines to go along their take out food, so this of course is going to help the restaurants a lot in terms of generating some revenue.” Lahlou also notes that “selling bottled wine is a lot easier than selling food. Plus, spoilage would be minimal and it would help us get rid of inventories. This is a very helpful way for restaurants to survive.”

In Los Angeles, Ronan’s co-owners Daniel and Caitlin Cutler are relieved about ABC’s changes. “This has the potential to be a huge lifeline for the restaurant industry and for our bartenders who have been completely immobilized,” says Caitlin. I’m super excited to see what creative options our city’s bartenders come up with!”

Heroic Deli in Santa Monica increased its sales thanks to wine and beer delivery. Owner Jeffrey Merrihue is thrilled about the changes. “It is full speed ahead at Heroic Italian, and bless ABC for doing it,” says Merrihue. “Hopefully it stays permanent. It’s hard enough to make money in any environment, especially this environment. We’ve already sold three cases of wine in 48 hours. We had so much inventory, which is fine when open for business. But as soon as we closed, we were sitting on thousands of dollars of inventory. To turn that inventory into cash, that’s brilliant.”

This might sound like a free for all, but it’s not. ABC only temporarily suspended its enforcement of specific prohibitions, and will rescind a businesses’ liquor license if a licensee abuses the temporary regulations. Other concerns were voiced by Eddie Navarette, founder of restaurant consulting firm FE Design & Consulting. Navarette consultants with restaurants and has firsthand experience with ABC, and dealing with local rules from cities and municipalities.

“I am proud to see the State of California relax their regulation in this time of natural disaster,” says Navarette. “This will not save the hospitality community by any means. Under the circumstances of being forced to close their on-site experience; it is an incremental benefit yet allows operators to step up their creativity on take out. The problem is this regulatory relief from the ABC does not supersede any local approvals, many of which restrict hours of operation and prohibit off-site sales of alcoholic beverages. As such, many restaurants — including most in LA — will be unable to benefit from this relief until their local authorities act. We call on municipalities throughout the state to follow the ABC and help this essential industry provide for their communities. We need local governments to listen to operators. Not direct us to more loan programs putting us more in debt.”

ABC recommends looking at the temporary regulations, and for operators to be aware of any license restrictions or conditions. Look at the full announcement, Or simply call or email ABC at headquarters@abc.ca.gov or (916) 419-2500.

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