A huckleberry lemon drop cocktail might just be the thing to take the shutdown edge off.
Soldiering on through the economic uncertainty of the stay-home order, Spokane restaurants are shaking, stirring and slinging cocktails to go after the state liquor board eased restrictions last week.
Heeding the call of restaurant owners statewide, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board announced May 6 that it would permit restaurants to sell customers a premixed cocktail in a sealed container.
The catch, however, is that the cocktails must be ordered with a meal and must be transported in the trunk of the customer’s or delivery driver’s vehicle. If there is no trunk, it has to be kept somewhere else out of reach of the driver and passengers.
Drinking and driving is still very much illegal, so there’s no circling the block to order drink after drink.
The liquor board initially resisted allowing cocktails to go, citing concerns about public safety.
Though cocktail sales are unlikely to make or break a restaurant through this pandemic, restaurant owners have repeated the refrain: Every little bit helps.
Downriver Grill on Northwest Boulevard started selling creative new concoctions and old favorites the day after the state issued its updated guidelines, according to owner Juli Norris. In addition to the huckleberry lemon drop, the restaurant has featured cocktails like the new “Audubon Breeze,” with coconut vodka, PAMA liqueur, pineapple juice and fresh lime.
Downriver Grill is known among regulars for its cocktails, and alcohol sales are important to the business, Norris said, because the worst profit margins in the restaurant industry are on the food itself.
“We make money when people are here and enjoying the entire experience,” Norris said. “To be limited to just selling food, already the margins of profitability tanked.”
Previously, the state had allowed the sale of cocktail “kits,” but restaurants could not mix the ingredients. So in order to buy a gin and tonic, a restaurant patron would buy a small, factory-sealed bottle of gin and a separate container of tonic.
By relaxing the restrictions on to-go cocktails, Washington joined other states, including Idaho, that were already allowing takeout drinks.
Scott Lea, owner of Wild Dawgs on North Howard Street, said the state’s action last week is “more helpful than nothing,” but he said the guidelines remain loose and worry the bartenders who are forced to comply with them. The state has ordered cocktails must be sold with a sealed lid, but it did not adequately define “sealed,” he argued.
Under the state’s guidelines, a plastic seal is allowed, but not if it has a straw hole, like those Wild Dawgs would have on hand.
A glass jar with a screw-top lid is permitted, but Lea said he would have to increase the price of cocktails to use the jars.
“Who wants to pay $9 for a well gin and tonic?” Lea asked. “I appreciate anything and we have sold some (cocktails), but it doesn’t cut the cake, it doesn’t make it work.”
For now, Norris said she’s just trying to sell enough food to get by.
“As a restaurant community, the owners and other restaurateurs are just doing the best they can to tread water and keep the doors open for their employees and with the hope that when this is all over there can actually be an element of profitability,” Norris said.
The allowance for to-go cocktails expires 30 days after a county enters Phase 4 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start reopening plan.
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