Operations

Restaurants and Bars Learn to Sell Alcohol To Go

How restaurants, wine bars, and cocktail lounges are making the most of an interim opportunity for off-premise alcohol sales

Photo courtesy of The Jeffrey.

When New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo mandated that all restaurants and bars must close on March 16 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, an unexpected twist from the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA) came with it: Any business holding an on-premise alcohol sales license would temporarily be permitted to sell beer, wine, and liquor to go with the purchase of food.

Restaurants in other areas soon urged legislators to enact similar allowances and states such as Illinois, Texas, and California, as well as cities such as Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, followed suit. 

Yet this new opportunity comes with new territory to navigate. SevenFifty Daily spoke to several restaurant owners and experts to get their advice on managing the shift to off-premise alcohol sales.

A Model for Selling Alcohol To Go

For restaurants with existing food pickup or delivery systems in place, tacking on alcohol sales has been a relatively simple task. Delivery platforms like Caviar and Seamless quickly allowed operators to add alcohol to delivery or pickup menus, and restaurants with sales-capable websites could add wines to their own ordering platforms.

For some restaurant operators moving to takeaway for the first time, wine is an easy add-on to boost a food order tab. At Ousia, wine is a natural complement to the kitchen’s classic Mediterranean and Greek fare, and they started offering bottles for $20—similar to retail pricing. 

For establishments where a creative cocktail menu or unique wine list is the main draw, operators can emphasize their bottle selection, and make food the add-on (particularly in states that require it, like New York and Texas). Henry Rich, the co-owner of Rhodora Wine Bar, June Wine Bar, and northern Italian restaurant Rucola in Brooklyn, decided to set up takeaway capabilities through Caviar, offering just a few food items for pickup and delivery at the two wine bars. Offered at 50 percent off list prices, the wine selections drive sales without requiring high staffing costs. “It’s keeping us afloat for the immediate time,” says Rich, “but it’s not making up for closing the wine bar.”

In Washington, D.C., Brent Kroll, the proprietor of wine bar Maxwell Park, is adopting a similar model but managing everything internally. Having lobbied and prepared for off-premise sales even before city officials enacted the legislation, Kroll listed Maxwell Park’s wine list online and accepted orders via email.

“[I knew] selling alcohol off-premise would give me a chance to pay my rent and give the rest to staff,” says Kroll. Wines are sold at a 30 percent discount from restaurant list prices, and Kroll tacks on an order of hummus for $1. For safety reasons, he now exclusively offers non-contact curbside pickup.

Because Oregon allows businesses to hold both on-premise and off-premise licenses, Dana Frank had already been conducting retail sales from the shelves in the back of her Portland wine bar, Bar Norman. But she had never sold wine online until March 22, after closing the wine bar to diners the night before. Instead of listing Bar Norman’s entire inventory on the website, Frank decided to offer a few select bottles for sale at retail prices every Sunday, and consumers have until Monday to order their favorites through the online shop (food purchases are not required by Oregon state law). “We basically do a weekly flash sale,” she says. “If I say, ‘these are six or eight wines I’m super excited about,’ it’s easy for people to pick which ones they’re interested in.” 

Frank and her husband (winemaker Scott Frank of Bow & Arrow) manage contactless local deliveries on Tuesdays, or purchasers can pick up their wines at Bow & Arrow on Wednesdays. Because the duo can manage operations together, they plan to continue conducting online sales unless state mandates change. “The response has been great,” says Frank. “Everyone’s [personal] budgets may run thinner as this goes on, but for now, people want to support their favorite small businesses.”

Other establishments are fully transitioning to off-premise retail sales models, like Justin Chearno, a partner in and wine director of the Four Horsemen in Brooklyn, New York. Formerly the wine buyer for Uva Wines, Chearno immediately used Shopify to set up a web store and began photographing bottles to add to the site. “I knew what pricing should be like, and we already had the white photo box because we take pictures of food and cocktails,” he shares. Within 36 hours of the SLA ruling, the Four Horsemen’s retail site was live.

To minimize costs, the Four Horsemen operates through pickup only, which allows the team to operate with just two people paid hourly (all tips received go to the restaurant’s employee relief fund). “We’re thankful to have a lot of people in the neighborhood who support us and are willing to leave their homes,” says Chearno. One week into the new model, something surprising happened: off-premise sales were so brisk that Chearno had to place an order for more wine.

For Cocktails To Go, Learning from China

Cocktails to go have an additional opportunity to create revenue—if restaurants and bars can master the logistics (and where legal; some states like Texas and Illinois do not permit off-premise sales of pre-mixed cocktails). Those considering off-premise cocktail sales should look to a country that is far ahead of the U.S. in both takeaway cocktail culture and managing the impact of coronavirus on restaurants and bars: China.

According to Chris Lowder, the Shanghai-based general manager of spirits wholesaler Proof & Company China, cocktail delivery took off in that country back in 2016. “The food delivery system in China is extraordinarily advanced, with high tech, low cost, and fast service,” says Lowder. “So it is expected in China that any good or service should also be available for delivery.”

Cocktails are typically sold as pre-mixed, pre-bottled cocktails or as a kit with spirits, mixers, vacuum-packed garnishes, vacuum-packed ice, and a recipe. Particularly in light of the coronavirus outbreak, sanitary measures are important; many takeaway cocktails have a sanitary wipe or two attached to the bag so customers can wipe everything down.

Lowder notes that most bars in China charge less for takeaway cocktails than they would on-premise, so operators should look towards stylish branding and high-quality photography to add value without having to reduce prices too much. 

New York cocktail bar Dante started packaging cocktails for pickup and delivery by applying leftover branded stickers from a New Orleans pop-up event to 12-ounce iced tea cups and repurposing 750-milliliter bottles for large-format cocktails. Owner Linden Pride’s wife soon ordered a pallet of eight-ounce glass bottles for pre-mixed, single-serve cocktails. 

“We’re trying to understand what people have an appetite for,” says Pride. “The regulations continue to shift, and behavior shifts with it.” The team at Dante relies on classic cocktails like Negronis, Old Fashioneds, and martinis, which are more stable because they don’t have citrus, and force-carbonated cocktails from kegs served in iced tea cups. 

Offering some value is key. Rather than offering single-cocktail pricing, Maven in San Francisco sells any two of its six cocktails for $20. At Dante, single-serve cocktails are $10—the same as the extensive Negroni menu’s happy hour pricing—but eight-ounce bottled cocktails hold three servings for $25. And while The Jeffrey in New York offers a robust selection of takeaway beverages, including $10 bottled cocktails, their weekend option to add a Mimosa or Bloody Mary to any brunch dish for $5 adds serious consumer value.

Early demand for takeaway cocktails seems to be promising; the positive response to food and alcohol delivery has allowed Pride to rehire 10 Dante staff members to work four-person shifts (two front-of-house, two back-of-house).



Injecting Hospitality into Takeaway Sales

To compensate for the lack of in-person hospitality, some operators are injecting a bit of socially distanced interaction through written or virtual education.

At Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in New York, managing partner Caleb Ganzer had already been working on a virtual version of the wine bar’s consumer Wine Boot Camp classes and was planning on partnering with a retail shop to sell wine packages to consumers. The new SLA legislation lined up perfectly with their plans. 

For the already-scheduled Wine Boot Camp for March 16, he quickly added the class’s four-pack of wine to La Compagnie’s online merchandise store; within a day, the wine bar had sold almost a dozen wine packs. 

“Our mentality is to figure out how we can keep bringing more wine to people,” says Ganzer. “We have a voice, and people seem to like what we’re doing.” The wine bar’s online store now features several packages, from $195 six-packs of “supernatural” wine to a $12,000 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti four-pack, and the entire Compagnie wine list is available for 25 percent off.

Offering curated packages of wine is helping the team at Ardesia in New York maintain the wine bar’s identity while offering a bit more to consumers. “Even by reducing our prices,” says owner Mandy Oser, “our wines are going to be slightly more expensive than retail, so what value can we add? [We’re offering that value] by being a little creative and curating our selections, how a wine list is supposed to be.” Selling hand-selected packages and adding an educational component also allows the team to connect with regulars remotely. Using Squarespace’s commerce functionality, Oser added several wine packages ranging from $70 to $150, including a “Wine 101” pack with note cards and guide to tasting wine. “As people are stuck inside,” she says, “they are curious to not only open a bottle, but to learn something while they are doing it.” 

The team at Rhodora is adopting a similar mentality. “Our wine club is for customers who want the curation and educational component,” says Rich. The club invites customers to pick up three bottles selected by Rhodora each week for $60; each weekly pack includes extensive notes from the team. At Ousia, wine director Kamal Kouri is hosting Instagram Live tastings to educate consumers about some of the restaurant’s weekly delivery options.

Lowder also emphasizes the importance of personalizing the takeaway cocktail experience, too, whether it’s by adding a handwritten note or drink description. “It helps fill the gap of the bartender experience and storytelling that’s otherwise missing in a delivery setting,” he says. The team at Dante adds an extra touch to each delivery bag, like their watercolor-painted coasters or flowers from the local florist. “We’re just trying to bring a little bit of sparkle to life beyond the drink,” says Pride.

Reaching the Right Customers

Posting on social media and sending email blasts to loyal guests are proving critical for many restaurants. Kroll recommends updating the restaurant’s website and planning a social media strategy immediately, even for operators in states waiting for local officials to pass new alcohol legislation.

Seeing the need to help restaurants communicate takeaway alcohol offerings, some entrepreneurs have stepped up to facilitate sales. Takeout COVID (originally launched as Cellars.NYC) maps restaurants and bars offering takeaway alcohol in eight cities across the U.S. and Canada. A crowdsourcing model allows anyone to submit information about businesses offering alcohol for takeout or delivery, and the website lists contact information for the business and basic information about whether food or alcohol is available for delivery.

Somm.ai was initially launched last year as a searchable database of over 8,000 wine lists from around the world; the goal was to help consumers drink better wine at restaurants. But upon learning about the SLA’s off-premise sales allowance, David Kong, a former financial analyst, along with partners Jeremy Hart and Spencer Choi-Schagrin, saw an opportunity to use Somm.ai’s resources as a retail sales platform.

“We’re working on onboarding as many restaurants as possible,” says Kong, emphasizing that this is a not-for-profit project with no costs to restaurants (though the team is currently working on some custom sales portals with large, nationwide companies, for which they will charge a small fee). The retail platform launched in New York with a handful of spots such as Aska, The Modern, and Noreetuh, and it is now adding restaurants in cities such as Houston, San Francisco, and Miami. Each restaurant’s full wine selection for sale is listed on Somm.ai, and consumers can purchase wines through the site. Restaurants fulfill the orders directly, but Somm.ai acts as an easy-to-navigate marketplace for consumers to access and purchase wines from their favorite lists.

Though most restaurant and bar operators are just focused on getting through each day, some wonder what the allowance for off-premise sales means for the future of the industry—particularly in states that did not allow on-premise operators to hold off-premise licenses.

“I’m curious to see how this ruling ends,” says Chearno. “Are we in a new environment now where we could possibly sell wine to go? I wonder what we’ll go back to.”

Courtney Schiessl is a Brooklyn-based wine journalist, educator, and consultant who has held sommelier positions at some of New York’s top restaurants, including Marta, Dirty French, and Terroir. She has written for Forbes.com, VinePair, and Wine Folly, among other publications, and she is currently pursuing the WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits. Follow her Champagne-fueled adventures on Instagram at @takeittocourt.

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