Bar and restaurant owners call on lawmakers to make to-go liquor sales permanent

Legislative Gazette photos by Dan DiLorenzo
Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner joins restaurant owner Dominick Purnomo at an event in Albany, calling on the State Legislature to pass a law that would make to-go liquor sales at restaurants and bars permanent in New York.

The New York State Restaurant Association, local restaurant owners, and New York lawmakers are pushing for the New York State Legislature to finalize Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposal of permanent to-go alcohol.

The call for permanent to-go liquor sales came in anticipation of last Wednesday’s budget subcommittee’s hearing on Economic Development.

Restaurant owners and their allies in the Legislature held coordinated press conferences last Wednesday across the state, including an event at dp, An American Brasserie.

Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, was at the Albany event last week, joined by NYSRA president Melissa Fleischut and Dominick Purnomo, owner of dp, An American Brasserie.

Bar and restaurant owners feel the change will bring a necessary influx of revenue as they look to recover losses resulting from a two-year pandemic that included shutdowns and other restrictions on their industry.

They are supporting bill S.8184/A.7732, which is sponsored by Leroy Comrie in the Senate and Steven Cymbrowitz in the Assembly.

It makes sense to enact legislation that will let the hospitality industry benefit permanently from a revenue stream that could make the difference between staying open and losing their livelihood forever,” said Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz, D-Brooklyn, who introduced alcohol-to-go legislation.

Hochul included a proposal to permanently allow to-go liquor sales in her State of the State Address delivered on January 5.

“To-go drinks have been a much-needed lifeline for the restaurant industry. These small businesses employ hundreds of thousands, and they serve as a pillar of a broader hospitality and tourism industry that employs hundreds of thousands more,” said Comrie, D-Queens. “The thoughtful implementation of to-go drinks, reflected in my legislation and in Governor Hochul’s [State of the State] proposal, would mean a more secure future for these small businesses and their employees.”

Legislative Gazette photo by Dan DiLorenzo
Melissa Fleischut, president of the New York State Restaurant Association

Melissa Fleischut, president of NYSRA shared that a recent survey of NYSRA association members revealed that 86 percent were worse off than they were just three months ago. This is roughly when the Omnicron variant of COVID became widespread in the state of New York.

The hope of restaurateurs and bar owners is that this added income stream will begin to reverse the downward trend of revenue seen statewide. Those in the industry are optimistic that revenue will improve in 2022 compared to years previously where this law was to be passed, believing that customers crave a restaurant or bar experience even if it has to be from the comfort of their own home.

“They don’t have the skill [and] they don’t have the ingredients to make it at home,” said Purnomo, co-owner of dp, An American Brasserie, about the desire for customers to enjoy restaurant-quality drinks. “We reopened June 2021 [and] we sold more handcrafted cocktails than we had ever sold before.”

A roadblock is the liquor distribution industry, described by Fleischut as a monopoly. Under New York State law, restaurants and bars can only purchase liquor from distributors which can result in pricing arrangements that are difficult for some businesses to accommodate.

“We get charged a gas fee, a delivery fee, if we don’t order a case we get penalized. Sometimes it’s up to 6 dollars more a bottle that we pay in a restaurant than a consumer or liquor companies,” said Tess Collins, owner of McGeary’s Pub in Albany. “They know we are held over a barrel because I can only buy liquor from that company.

Legislative Gazette photo by Dan DiLorenzo
Tess Collins, owner of McGeary’s Pub in Albany

According to Fleischut, the liquor industry believes that if to-go sales become permanent it will draw money away from liquor stores that thrived during the pandemic. Framed incorrectly, she believes, as a debate between small business owners, draws attention away from their need to rebuild the industry within the state.

NYSRA, bar or tavern owners, and lawmakers responding to the needs of their constituents are imploring the state legislature to recognize their needs and how important the implementation of this proposal is in restoring the health of the restaurant industry.

“What we found was that liquor sales at liquor stores were up for liquor stores 38 percent in 2020 over 2019 and an additional 24 percent in 2021 over 2019 so they’ve been doing just fine and  I’d be happy to show them what the restaurant numbers look like during that period of time because our liquor sales were down 58 percent and then down another 26 percent in 2021,” said Fleischut.

“We had alcohol to-go that entire time under the executive order, so did we hurt the liquor store industry by having alcohol to-go? Absolutely not. I don’t think this is a zero-sum game.”

The Restaurant Association feels that there is no “silver bullet” solution to rebuild the restaurant and bar industry and that it will take much time to see a return to pre-pandemic levels of success and growth. However, they have faith in the benefits of this proposal and its passage.

“To know that we have growing support in the legislature and we have the support of the governor I think that as of right now this is the most confident about getting this legislation pushed for in quite some time,” Purnomo said.

Similar events were held in New York last week in Buffalo, Commack on Long Island, Woodhaven in Queens, and Harrison, Westchester County.