Industry Divided Over Takeout Drinks
Massachusetts Package Store Association Executive Director Robert Mellion (left) briefs lawmakers Wednesday on the group's priorities, including its opposition to extending takeout drink sales at bars and restaurants. He is joined by Huntington Wine and Spirits owner Steve Rubin (center) and Sav Mor owner Ben Weiner (right). [Chris Lisinski/SHNS]
It's the restaurants versus the packies.
Lawmakers considering whether to continue allowing patrons to purchase beer, wine and cocktails to go with their takeout food orders must weigh the interests of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, which supports the idea, against those of the Massachusetts Package Store Association, whose leader warned Wednesday that keeping the option around would contribute to the shops' "death by a thousand cuts."
Several bills before the Consumer Protection Committee would once again extend authorization for restaurants and bars with liquor licenses to sell takeaway beer, wine and cocktails or make it altogether permanent.
"Cocktails to go has proven to be extremely popular with guests across our industry. Our guests love the convenience of getting a restaurant-quality drink with their food orders, and it has provided a much-needed revenue boost to our industry," said Mass. Restaurant Association Director of Government Affairs Jessica Muradian.
She added that many diners want "unique cocktails that they can only get from these restaurants," rather than more ubiquitous drinks available at package stores and other retailers.
The Package Store Association argued instead Wednesday that the emergency conditions that prompted the temporary policy change have long since subsided.
In the past three years, Mass. Package Store Association Executive Director Robert Mellion said, the availability of to-go drinks has led to multiple incidents of underage sales, typically involving third-party delivery services.
"It's death by 1,000 cuts," Mellion said.
He sought to draw a distinction between the concept of takeout drinks and the actual practice since it was implemented, saying some establishments offer only "a couple of nips and some water."
"That's what hurts. It's not a nice cocktail that has been put together in a nice package that is going with a pizza. It's the quick drinks to go that's actually really prepackaged alcohol," Mellion said. "It's the large chain restaurants, not the independent Joe's Pizza, that is the problem here."
While Mellion submitted written testimony indicating the package store group "strongly opposes" extending or making permanent takeout beer, wine and cocktails, he told lawmakers that "drinks to go can probably be something that can be lived with" if policymakers "rein in third-party delivery."
Muradian said Wednesday that 39 states implemented temporary takeout drink provisions during the public health emergency, 18 of which have since enacted it permanently.
"We hope Massachusetts will be the next one," she said.
Massachusetts first allowed the sale of takeout beer, wine and then mixed drinks early in the pandemic, when many businesses were forced to close to limit the spread of the highly infectious virus.
Lawmakers have delayed the policy's expiration several times since then, most recently in a spending bill Gov. Maura Healey signed in March that will keep it in place until April 1, 2024.
Rep. Paul Frost, who filed one of the bills that would make takeout drinks a permanent option (H 295), said restaurateurs have been left in the lurch by the repeated uncertainty about when or whether Beacon Hill would act.
"I know there are businesses, for example, that have now made specialty containers for their takeout alcohol with their names on it. Now they're investing money into it. It would just really, for lack of a better term, suck if all of a sudden we just arbitrarily didn't get around to renewing it. And we all know what can happen," Frost, an Auburn Republican, said. "We all know how deadline politics works in this particular sector. Sometimes, yes, it's going to be part of a bigger bill, to get it done to extend it a year or two. But the problem is that when we do that, we also know that it may not happen because something gets held up in the House or the Senate, there's a disagreement, and all of a sudden now these people can't do it anymore."
"I think that I think we can just take that doubt away from them," he added.
The restaurant and package store industry groups are not completely at odds, however.
Both associations endorsed legislation (H 369) that would allow an alcohol seller to rely upon an out-of-state driver's license for the purposes of criminal liability, which they said would effectively bring Massachusetts in line with every single other state that recognizes those licenses for sale of boozy beverages.
Mellion in his written testimony slammed the current policy of not relying on out-of-state licenses as "archaic and irrational."
"Passports from other countries are valid forms of ID, so we cannot accept a license from New Hampshire, but we can accept a passport from Finland," Muradian said. "Massachusetts has positioned itself as a world-class destination. It is time we update our alcohol ID laws to reflect our global and regional economy."