Local restaurants are toasting news that alcohol to go has legal status, moving beyond Texas' stopgap measure allowing it during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Restaurants, hit hard by occupancy limits and an uneasy public, saw sales plummet as COVID-19 took hold. Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott tossed the industry a lifeline in March 2020, signing a waiver allowing to-go alcohol sales. It was to expire only months later, but the state extended it indefinitely.
"We started selling to-go alcohol as soon as the governor made it legal to do so," said Sam Castillo III, whose family owns La Fiesta restaurant on Franklin Avenue. "During the pandemic, when restaurants were limited to only to-go sales, the alcohol revision helped us immensely. People still wanted their cold, frozen margaritas with their piping hot Tex-Mex plates."
Castillo said he was glad La Fiesta could accommodate customers.
"And, yes, we are glad to hear that it's sticking around, as alcohol represents a large part of our business, though food sales have always far outweighed our liquor sales," he said. "Business is starting to get back to where it was pre-COVID. It seems to be picking up each week."
The Texas Senate last week passed a measure, House Bill 1024, that would allow beer, wine and mixed drinks to be included in pickup and delivery food orders, preserving the revenue stream that arrived during the pandemic.
The Texas House previously approved the bill, which Gov. Abbott has said he will sign into law, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission website.
"Making tools for alcohol to go permanent will accelerate the industry's recovery, supporting thousands of jobs and small businesses along the way," State Sen. Kelly Hancock, a Republican from North Richland Hills, told the Texas Tribune. "Once this provision was placed in through the pandemic, we saw restaurants that were closed down open back up."
Calvin Leslie, an operating partner at P.F. Chang's in Waco, said the restaurant "has sold our fair share of liquor drinks, wine and beer" to customers placing orders for delivery or pick-up. He said COVID-19 has roiled the industry, and to-go orders easily account for half P.F. Chang's business volume locally.
"I think alcohol to go is a great option, allows us to serve our guests in a manner comparable to what they would experience inside," Leslie said.
He said P.F. Chang's sends alcohol on the road in self-sealed containers, "similar to milk jugs," festooned with labels identifying the contents. He said its most popular drink, going or staying, is the agave margarita.
"Bars and restaurants in Texas have leaned on cocktails to go throughout the pandemic as a lifeline to keep their doors open and generate revenue," Kristi Brown, senior director of state government relations for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, told the Texas Tribune. "Now, the legislature has taken action to make this critical measure permanent and provide long-term support for Texas businesses. We thank Governor Abbott for being a vocal supporter of cocktails to go and encourage him to sign this bill as soon as possible and make the business- and consumer-friendly measure permanent in Texas."
Kyle Citrano, president of the Waco Restaurant Association, said he supports the alcohol to go measure because it benefits his industry. He said it could prove especially appealing to restaurants with signature drinks.
Besides generating revenue for dining establishments, state coffers would benefit from increased alcohol-related tax revenue, Citrano said. Customers now free to buy alcohol with food to go would pay those taxes.
"I don't think there's a bad side to this," Citrano said.
He dismissed any notion the policy would encourage drinking and driving.
"Containers have to be zip-tied. We can't allow you to walk out with a 'Big-O' in your hand," Citrano said, referencing the goblets of beer popularized by the two George's Restaurant locations locally.
He likened the approach to buying beer in cans at the grocery store.
Guy Boutilier, who manages Cricket's Grill & Draft House, 211 Mary Ave., applauded the decision to make alcohol to go legal going forward.
But its impact on Cricket's way of doing business may prove minimal.
"Cricket's sold a very small amount of alcoholic drinks to go, and when we did, it was in the beginning of the pandemic," Boutilier said via email. "As we see Cricket's as a great place for folks to responsibly gather, to-go food and drinks have never been a large revenue generator for this concept."
Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission spokesperson Chris Porter said he could not comment on pending legislation.
"But in general we don't anticipate any unforeseen enforcement challenges, as the Governor's waivers from last year essentially introduced these changes as part of the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic," Porter said.
Mary Duty, whose family owns and operates Poppa Rollo's Pizza on Valley Mills Drive, expressed mixed emotions about alcohol to go.
"You're taking home Mexican food and you want a gallon of margaritas to go with it. … Is it going to end up on little Johnny's table at home?" Duty said. "But far be it from me to tell people how to continue doing hospitality work. God knows the restaurant industry has been around the block. Now we're in the middle of labor changes. It's hard to find help, and restaurants are trying to get ready for when the public returns to dining."
To complete a transaction involving customers picking up alcohol or having it delivered, the TABC stipulates that recipients must not be intoxicated, must provide valid proof of their identity and that they are at least 21 years old, and must sign a receipt acknowledging the pickup or delivery.
An individual representing the restaurant also may verify the transaction.