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Cocktails-to-go may become a permanent fixture in California

Two women wearing masks make to-go cocktails at a restaurant in Texas.
More than 30 states allowed some form of takeout cocktail sales during the pandemic. Nila White, 20, left, and Brooklin Lafong, 22, make to-go cocktails at the Shot, a popular restaurant and bar in Galveston, Texas.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

As most of California’s counties reopen dine-in service at bars and restaurants in some form, one of the pandemic’s biggest takeout pivots might become permanent: This week the state Senate unanimously passed a bill that would permanently authorize the sale of to-go cocktails for pickup and delivery.

The temporary provision aided shuttered businesses that sold alcohol during the pandemic, allowing them a source of income as they went through the cycles of opening and closing. During the pandemic, establishments that offered takeout cocktails also had to sell food. Under SB 398 in its current form, food would not be required for the sale of alcohol, though the practice of tightly sealing and clearly labeling cocktails would remain in place.

The bill passed in the state Senate on Monday and now awaits a vote in the Assembly. If it passes, it can proceed to the Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.

Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa), who introduced the bill, sees the permanent sale of to-go cocktails as a way to help restaurants and bars that are still struggling to recoup their losses of the past 14 months.

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“If allowing restaurants to sell carry-out cocktails helps keep their doors open, we must do it,” Dodd said in a statement. “This is about preserving jobs and getting our economy back on track.”

More than 30 states allowed some form of takeout cocktail sales during the pandemic, and a number of these have made the temporary measures permanent, including Iowa, Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio.

“It’s not like bottled cocktails are new — companies like Bottle Service and other RTDs [ready-to-drink cocktails] have been around for a while,” said Tom Sopit, managing partner of West Hollywood bar and restaurant Employees Only. “It’s just getting more popular because there was never a reason to have to buy them in bottled form and drink it at home, until the pandemic.

“I think it’s great news,” Sopit added. “I think all the bars are going to love it because it’s another addition they can add to their streams of revenue.”

Employees Only was one of the first Los Angeles bars to offer to-go cocktails during the pandemic. Once managers heard about New York’s temporary legalization, they prepared for what they hoped would be a similar provision. The Employees Only just-add-alcohol cocktail kits evolved into prepared cocktails in glass bottles with labels, and the bar — which normally offers food but did not reopen its kitchen — teamed up with pop-up Elio’s Wood Fire Pizza to legally sell them after temporary sales became legal in California.

Employees Only still sells takeout cocktails, and has throughout the pandemic, despite reopening through an alfresco event series called Summer Social Club in the parking lot. Sopit says the bar is already seeing a decrease in takeout-drink sales, given L.A.’s recent restaurant and bar reopenings, but his team is still investing in canning methods and new branding for its takeout operation.

If the bill becomes law and California bars are allowed to sell them permanently, Sopit says Employees Only will always offer to-go cocktails.

Currently 11 of California’s 58 counties are still idling in the red tier of the state’s color-coded reopening plan, meaning bars without some form of food service cannot reopen in any way without food service. In the state’s orange and yellow tiers, bars without food offerings can reopen; in Los Angeles County, and indoor bar service could resume last week.


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