‘We don’t survive’: Portland bars and restaurants ask to sell take-out cocktails
Before a crayfish boil or barbecue in his native New Orleans, award-winning bartender Ricky Gomez loved to walk to a daiquiri store to buy a half-gallon of iced cocktail for the party – at the time. were parties.
When Gomez opened Palomar, his Cuban-style cocktail bar and restaurant, he couldn’t quite replicate that New Orleans experience in Portland. Oregon Laws, including some dating from the ban, place strict limits on sales of spirits, including banning bars and restaurants from selling take-out cocktails. But that didn’t stop him from bringing a taste of the Big Easy to the Pink City: before the coronavirus pandemic shut down Gomez’s business, Palomar was best known for his daiquiris, the centerpiece of a cocktail menu that collectively attracted more than half of the company’s revenue.
Now Gomez and other small business owners are begging Oregon rulers to follow dozens of states and municipalities, including California, Washington and Idaho relax restrictions to allow restaurants and bars to offer cocktails or take-out cocktail kits.
“Everyone suffers, but if you look specifically at unemployment in Oregon, the service sector has been hit ten times harder than any other,” Gomez said. “When you take this bread away from a business like mine, we won’t be able to survive. And in fact, we don’t survive. We are closed and all of my employees, including myself, are unemployed.
The public health crisis caused by COVID-19 has created an ancillary economic crisis for the American restaurant industry. In the six weeks since Governor Kate Brown banned on-site dining at restaurants and bars across the state, over 80 percent of Oregon’s approximately 155,000 service workers have been laid off, according to a survey by the National Restaurant Association, representing nearly two-fifths of Oregon’s 334,000 laid-off workers.
Unlike restaurants, highly regarded craft cocktail bars such as Palomar – The Oregonian / OregonLive’s Bar of the year in 2018 and manufacturer of one of the America’s Best Thrillist Cocktails last year – have found it impossible to switch to a take-out model. Most don’t have delivery services, and even if they were, their flagship items aren’t pizza or burgers. These are cocktails.
Gomez, a first-generation Cuban-American who was once named American Bartender of the Year at the world’s largest cocktail competition, hopes to rehire two of his 14-person staff to prepare and package drinks though Oregon gives the green light for cocktails to go. If the state required alcohol sales to be accompanied by food, as in New York and California, it could bring back two or three more kitchen workers to make yuca fries, medianoche sandwiches, and other Cuban specialties. to take away.
During the first three weeks after Governor Brown’s order, the Oregon Liquor Control Board streamlined the process for businesses to offer beer for same day delivery, wine, cider and marijuana without obtaining a signature. During the same period, the agency processed more than 150 requests for same-day delivery privileges from restaurants, bars and breweries, and received nearly 500 additional requests for off-site privileges from licensees. Others followed.
And last week, the commission authorized restaurants and bars to suspend their alcohol liability insurance and to postpone payment dates for annual license renewal fees. The agency also recently allowed distilleries to start selling their products online and over the phone, including for home delivery.
UNIQUE IN THE WEST
But making a change that would allow restaurants and bars to sell take-out spirits would require a change at the legislative level, OLCC spokesman Bryant Haley said. It is because the Oregon law governing the sale of alcohol specifically states that “all alcoholic beverages sold under a full on-site sales license must be consumed on authorized premises”. Haley believes a change could be on the agenda if the Oregon legislature calls a special session, though she may not be high on the to-do list.
And Haley says any easing of restrictions on alcohol sales will likely lead to a pullback for temperance and recovery groups. In a letter to the Joint Special Committee on Coronavirus Response last month, Oregon House District 43 Representative Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, made this point, urging the OLCC to reconsider its decision to facilitate home delivery of beer and wine, interrupt discussions around take-out alcohol sales and the closure of all liquor stores during the duration of the coronavirus crisis in order to avoid relapses in the within the recovery community. During this time, WHO has recommended governments limit access to alcohol during the pandemic.
Oregon’s neighbors have each given the go-ahead for take-out cocktails in one form or another, though states differ on the details. In California you can get a pre-dosed margarita – even chains like Chili’s – with your chips and your guac. In Idaho, artisanal cocktail bars including Press & Pony offer their Homemade Bee’s Knees and Manhattan cocktails in 8 ounce mason jars for curbside pickup. Washington state, meanwhile, has temporarily allowed restaurants and bars to add spirits to their take-out menus, as long as they stay inside their factory-sealed containers.
The latter model, in operation since March at restaurants in southwest Washington including Little Conejo and Rally Pizza, wouldn’t help much on this side of the Columbia River, argue Gomez and others. As one of the remaining 17 “control states”, Oregon has a monopoly on the sale and distribution of hard liquor, limiting restaurants and bars to a 5% discount on purchase. of spirits. Freezing profits on cocktail kits at this margin could have a chilling effect on bars and restaurants hoping to reopen. Bars in Washington state have also requested the privilege of selling pre-mixed take-out drinks..
VODKA PAYS BILLS
On Hey Love’s closing day, popular slushies at the plant-filled East Burnside bar included a strawberry rosé daiquiri and a variation of piña colada that patrons could pair with so-called Miami Vice. Now, co-owner Emily Mistell wishes she could turn her business into a daiquiri hut with no elevator, similar to the ones Gomez would visit in New Orleans, putting a few employees who have had trouble getting unemployment insurance benefits return to work in the process. Mistell, one of Portland’s top bartenders, also says she misses the chance to watch someone else make her a cocktail. “It’s just a lot more effort than breaking a white claw,” Mistell said.
Flap bars have everything to gain from a rule change. But Portland restaurants are also eager to show off their bottled cocktail skills.
Eric Nelson, co-owner of Texas-Thai bar mashup Eem, says he’s already laying the groundwork to add Eem’s signature piña coladas to the restaurant and bar’s popular new take-out menu, and wonders if the state will miss out. soon the tens of thousands of dollars in alcohol purchases that Eem and others “put in the OLCC coffers” every week. Until there, Oregon Liquor Stores Report Revenue Increased Statewide, with an increase in consumer purchases offsetting the loss of closed restaurants and bars.
And it’s not just the hip newcomers hoping to offer cocktails to go. Ringside Steakhouse, one of Portland’s oldest family-owned restaurants, would be “the first in line” to offer Manhattan cocktail kits – perhaps alongside prime rib dinners to reheat and serve – if restrictions weren’t there. waivers, according to general manager Geoffrey Rich. The 75-year-old restaurant just underwent a take-away test when it first opened sale of dry aged steaks last weekend when traffic roared from their West Burnside parking lot to Powell’s City of Books and beyond.
“I don’t know of a restaurant that doesn’t just wait for it to happen,” said Israel Morales, co-owner of modern Russian restaurant Kachka. “The economics of a restaurant these days doesn’t exist without a beverage program, especially when you look at the profit margins of a grocery store, which is what most of us have become. “
This is true even at the best of times, Morales said. Even at a restaurant known for its cuisine – Morales’ partner Chef Bonnie Morales was a 2018 James Beard Award finalist – the beverage program is almost always more profitable. That’s because restaurants mark up beer and wine about three times what they pay for and ingredients in cocktails up to four or five times. And unlike food, alcohol rarely spoils, labor costs behind the bar tend to be lower than in the kitchen, and although the average customer might order just one round of Siberian dumplings, he can wash it with more than one Moscow Mule. Add it all up and it’s easy to see why even restaurants that have made it to take out say they do it with just 10-20 percent of their pre-pandemic staff, or Morales owns a shirt that says : “Vodka pays the bills.”
“It’s not about making extra money, it’s about surviving. I am making deliveries (from Kachka) right now to be able to pay my rent, so I can keep all 10 of my staff employed. There is desperation.
Palomar owner Gomez said he had “nothing but good things to say about the OLCC,” noting the agency’s responsible service program, which trains bartenders in Oregon to researching appropriate identification, spotting physical clues of intoxication, and detailing the legal ramifications of over-serving a guest. “I saw more isolated people in Portland in a year than in my previous 10 years in New Orleans,” Gomez said.
Gomez knows cocktails aren’t the most pressing issue, but he’s eager to reopen his business and “get back to working 12 hours a day.” And he thinks Palomar could play a small role in bringing back a “sense of normalcy” during Brown’s home-safe drive.
“Take-out cocktails will not cure COVID-19,” Gomez said. “But when it comes to unemployment, that’s something that can help the viability of these small businesses. You can only hire a few people, but it’s more than zero more. “