The idea of a cocktail to-go has always presented a bit of a head-scratching, “What if?” scenario for bars and restaurants. But as the novel Coronavirus outbreak runs its course, the age of the to-go cocktail has finally arrived. Although not by choice, restaurants and bars across the nation have begun offering their favorite cocktails in quarantine-friendly formats. Thankfully, state governing bodies have loosened their restrictions on off-premise alcohol sales. The new adjusted laws are different in each state, but they are providing a much-needed revenue stream for bars during these unprecedented times. Today, we’re going to look at the current state of off-premise liquor sales, and get into some tips on how you can execute top-notch to-go cocktails.
The main hurdle in selling cocktails to-go has been the legality -- but crafting a tasty, take-home cocktail also requires some finessing from a quality point-of-view. Not all mixed drinks travel well -- some components are best consumed immediately (think fresh herbs and aromatics). To navigate this new landscape of options, bars and restaurants have been offering their drinks in several different formats. Some are ready-made, some are ‘just-add-booze,’ and others still are entire cocktail kits, with each ingredient pre-packaged. No matter the packaging though, restaurants and bars can all agree -- relaxed premise laws are providing a much-needed revenue stream for the time being.
As our readers surely know, the margins on mixed drinks can be attractive for restaurateurs and bar owners. And although some bars have taken to selling full bottles of spirits, some smaller operations don’t have the inventory on hand to make that a worthwhile endeavor. For these bars, the idea of a to-go cocktail has been attractive in the past weeks. According to a recent tweet by Alinea owner: “Interestingly we've sold $5,600 worth of Margarita kits from Alinea. We've been doing this all wrong for years…” In other large cities like New York, bars have reported selling 200 to-go cocktails per day. While it’s a far cry from business-as-usual, every dollar counts, as PDT owner Jim Meehan recently told Esquire Magazine:
“It’s going to create a little cushion to keep people on payroll a few more days. Every day, every hour, every dollar counts, so hopefully, people are generous with their tips and I can keep a fund going for the staff as a little cushion to get them through to supplement unemployment that they’re going to receive once we completely shut down.”
Given the success that establishments are seeing, it’s no surprise that F + B heavyweights have hopped on board the to-go cocktail train. Last year, NYC hotspot Dante was awarded ‘World’s Best Bar’. Currently, Dante is running a carry-out and delivery caviar program. On the beverage front, Dante is filling to-go coffee cups with Negronis, and offering 8 oz. bottles of their signature Old Fashioned and Martinis. Dante is now reported to be moving 25% of the alcohol volume that it would on non-pandemic nights, which has allowed the owner to support many employees with pay and full-time health coverage. And according to the New York Times, Dante has hired 10 of its furloughed 50 employees to help with to-go efforts.
All of this being said, to-go cocktail hours haven’t exactly been easy wins for restaurants. In Illinois and New York, the industry had to do a fair amount of campaigning to achieve some amnesty during the Coronavirus outbreak. In Illinois in particular, the relaxation of off-premise alcohol sales was originally only limited to beer and wine. And still, there are some caveats depending on which state you’re serving in. Some states are requiring that alcohol cannot be pre-mixed into a cocktail. Others are mandating that it cannot be sold in its original packaging. We suggest looking at your local and state government websites to find the exact specifications for off-premise alcohol sales.
Now that we’ve gotten through the ‘current events’ of the off-premise alcohol situation, it’s time we discussed execution. As with anything in the F + B world, there’s “doing it” and then there’s “doing it well”. Not all cocktails can be served to-go and retain any semblance of quality. Many establishments are focusing exclusively on beer and wines for to-go programs, as these orders can be fulfilled without spending extra money on packaging or included marketing materials.
Those doing cocktails are understandably sticking to what they do best. There’s a time and place for experimentation -- this isn’t it. We suggest picking a few of your signature drinks or best-sellers and offering them in some kind of batched format. Unfortunately, offering a full menu of cocktail options just isn’t realistic for the time being.
Many bars are offering these fan-favorites in larger formats. For example, a 1-liter bottle of the drink’s non-alc component, alongside a full bottle of spirit. These can be priced anywhere from $50 all the way up to $100, depending on the drink. Customers are looking to leave the house as little as possible, so don’t be shy with the portions. The most successful to-go liquor programs have been those who offer several servings per order, in a format that will keep well in a standard refrigerator.For beer, growlers will likely be your best bet, for the same reasons that large-batch cocktails will surely perform well.
Also, be sure that you’re offering the customer something they can’t really recreate at home. Now more than ever, customers need a special reason to “go out”, and at the same time, people are getting more adventurous than before with their home-cocktailing recipes.
At the end of the day, the mission is still the same: provide customers with an awesome experience that they can’t recreate at home. Do what you do best. While we weather the storm as an industry, these same guiding principles are more relevant than ever before. By doubling down on what makes each of our restaurants or bars great, we can make it through these trying times.
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