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A lifeline for some, a burden for others: To-go alcohol sales get mixed reviews from restaurants
(Karen Brooks Harper)

Austin sports bar owner Trey Dart was excited—along with the general drinking community—when last month Gov. Greg Abbott told establishments like his that they could sell cocktails to go during the pandemic shutdown.


"We saw it as one form of relief to help restaurants and bars weather this storm," said Dart, who owns Shooter's Billiards, where alcohol accounts for more than half of his sales.

The buzz wore off, he said, when it became clear that the new rules would increase his financial risk and lower his margin. That is a deadly combination at a time when Texas restaurants have seen a 70% drop in business and been forced to lay off at least 60% of the workforce, estimated at 1.2 million in the state, according to the Texas Restaurant Association.

The problem is that the rules, clarified by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission within a few days of the governor's March 18 order, still forbid the sale of drinks mixed in-house to be picked up or delivered.

Restaurants are allowed only to serve cocktail setups—without the alcohol in them—to go. The accompanying alcohol must be in the form of sealed single or double-shot alcohol bottles purchased from the local package store.

So while Austin is excited about Abbott's comment this week that "alcohol-to-go sales" may become a fixture in Texas, the reaction from restaurants is mixed.

For some, like Curra's Grill in South Austin, they've been a lifeline. For others, like Taco Flats, it isn't worth the trouble.

"There's no margin in it," said Simon Madera, founder and owner of Taco Flats, which is not serving the drink kits because he said the demand isn't there.

Dart also saw the kits as a risk he wasn't ready to take because he would have to purchase the single-serve bottles, which cost much more than the large handles used behind the bar.

"Sinking money into additional inventory just doesn't make fiscal sense in this environment," he said.

Neither availed themselves of a law passed last year allowing them to offer mixed drink set-ups through delivery services.

What would truly help restaurants and bars is to be allowed to mix cocktails and pour glasses of wine, seal them at the restaurant and sell them to go, said local attorney Kareem Hajjar, who represents thousands of restaurant and bar locations in Texas, including several hundred in Austin.

That lets them clear inventory from the bar, employ bartenders, raise their margins, and attract more drink customers, he said.

But regardless of what version he supports, if any, Abbott can't change the alcoholic beverage code by himself—this is why his much-celebrated Tweet included the hashtag #txlege—so any permanence would require the act of a legislature that is not historically prone to quick changes to the code.


Some restaurants have found a way to profit from the setups, however. Jorge Garcia, the founder of Curra's, says the restaurant sells close to 150 to-go margarita set-ups per day at about $10 each.

About 90% of those sales are Curra's signature avocado margaritas, Garcia said. The iconic 25-year-old restaurant is on the edge of Travis Heights, whose residents are tipping handsomely during the shutdown.

Not all restaurants are so lucky, he said, but he knows several that have figured out a winning formula.

"That is what has saved Curra's Grill and many restaurants in Austin, the ability to send drinks out," he said. "So I hope this to-go business lasts forever."

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