Permanent cocktails to-go law offers opportunity for local businesses

Jonathan Riley
Morning Sun
A bartender in upstate New York has her hands full with boozy freeze pops, created as creative to-go cocktails, in this photo from last August. Thanks to a new law, to-go cocktails will now be allowed permanently in Kansas, rather than just temporarily for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

PITTSBURG, Kan. — With vaccines now readily available, the COVID-19 pandemic that defined 2020 finally seems to be dissipating. One change brought on by the pandemic, though, is here to stay in Kansas — beer and cocktails to go. 

Gov. Laura Kelly signed a new measure into law on Wednesday that will allow clubs, bars and restaurants to serve to-go beer and alcoholic drinks until 11 p.m. The new law continues a policy that Kelly implemented through executive order in April of last year during the statewide lockdown, which remained in effect until the end of March. 

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States has said that temporary policies like the one in Kansas provided “a lifeline” to the hospitality industry during the pandemic, but consumers also liked the convenience, the Associated Press reports. 

In Pittsburg, Blaise Main, general manager and co-owner of The Pitt restaurant, says that while he had customers asking about drinks to go during the pandemic, his business often wasn’t able to meet the demand.     

“We did have quite a few, it was just that we didn’t really have the capabilities to take it on full-time,” Main says. “You know, we could make one here or there when we were slower, but through the shutdown, we’d have 15, 20 cars out front waiting for their to-go orders, and it was hard to keep up with that in and of itself, and you throw in making a drink in between, you know, answering the phone and taking orders, it just kind of threw a hiccup in there that we weren’t ready to take on full-time.” 

Now that serving to-go drinks will be a permanent option for restaurants rather than a temporary one that ends with COVID-10 pandemic, though, Main says he’ll have to look into it more seriously. 

“It’s another avenue for profit and it’s something that we’re not used to doing,” Main says, “so it could be a bonus for us.” 

Joel Stewart, CEO and head brewmaster at the Jolly Fox Brewery, meanwhile, says that far from being a new idea that emerged from the pandemic, selling beer to go in growlers, or refillable bottles, has been an integral part of his business since the brewery opened in 2019. 

“We’ve always done growlers to go,” Stewart says. Although the Jolly Fox sells mixed drinks too, “we’ve never really dipped our toes into cocktails to go because we’ve never had that big of a to-go business,” he says, adding that the Jolly Fox has always focused on providing an atmosphere where customers will want to come into the restaurant, order food and drinks, and come back for more. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns last year prevented in-restaurant dining, however, growler sales became a key revenue source for the Jolly Fox. 

“It was a major part of our business at the time,” Stewart says. “It was one of the only things that kept us afloat.” 

Mark McClain, co-owner of Pittsburg’s other craft brewery, Drop The H, told the Morning Sun last year that while some aspects of the state's response to the pandemic were difficult to deal with as a business owner, the Alcoholic Beverage Control division of the Kansas Department of Revenue handled the crisis well. 

“With the advent of curbside delivery, that kind of left a gray area in the law subject to interpretation,” McClain said, “and the state people in charge of that actually took that gray area out and delineated it in our favor to make sure that we knew we were complying with the law and were fully able to offer beer to go via curbside delivery.”    

Stewart, for his part, says he is glad that Gov. Kelly signed the bill allowing to-go beer and cocktails beyond the end of the pandemic, adding that neither should have ever been illegal to begin with.  

As people begin to return to something bearing at least some resemblance to their pre-pandemic routines, in-restaurant service is once again the main focus at the Jolly Fox, Stewart says. For customers who still want their beer to go, though, in addition to growlers, six-packs of three Jolly Fox beers — Lucky Streak, Foxxy IPA, and Crisp and Cozy Brown Ale — are now available at the brewery at 301 S. Broadway as well as at Pairott Head Liquor and The Meat Shed in Pittsburg. 

At the Pitt, Main says, to-go orders made up about 5 percent of sales prior to the pandemic. After jumping to 100 percent when public health orders prohibited in-restaurant dining, to-go orders were still about 30 to 35 percent when in-restaurant dining was first allowed to resume and have remained at about 20 to 25 percent of sales. 

“But in-house has also increased, and it’s getting busier,” Main says. “Last night on a Wednesday night, we had a 45-minute wait […] It was a little crazy for a Wednesday night to have that big of a crowd, and people willing to wait, you know, 45 minutes to an hour just for a table.” 

Main says he doesn’t anticipate business slowing down in the next few months. 

“I think this summer is going to be one of the best summers, just because everybody’s ready to get out and about and back to normal,” he says. “So yeah, we’re looking forward to it, and on top of that you throw on the to-go cocktails, that will definitely be something that we look into and try to, you know, capitalize on and see what we can do to provide more for the community and get us a little extra money in our pocket.” 

Besides Kansas, 11 other states have made cocktails to go permanent, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, and another six have extended their temporary policies into at least next year, according to the AP.