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Want That Craft Cocktail To-Go? Not in New Orleans

A temporary rule during New Orleans’s stay-ay-home order forbids restaurants from selling mixed drinks to-go

Mixed drinks to-go are not currently allowed in New Orleans
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A lifeline, by its very nature, is not conditional.

Which is why just about every chef and restaurateur in town is gobsmacked by the hard line taken by the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) when it comes to offering batch or single-serve mixed cocktails in closed containers to-go or for delivery. At a time when revenue from selling drinks is more critical than ever — and many states have loosened up in response — Louisiana restaurants are shut out of the game, unable to offer mixed drinks to go.

Pre-pandemic, New Orleans restaurants serving liquor typically had an on-premise license allowing them to sell drinks at the bar, including “walk-tails” — drinks ordered in what’s known as “go cups” to take with. Because of that, there wasn’t a need for an off-premise license allowing for delivery in most cases. But the new rule, enacted on a temporary basis, according to Ernest P. Legier, Jr., ATC Deputy Commissioner, is that only wine and beer in closed containers or pre-made frozen beverages from a machine can be offered for curbside pickup or delivery — not mixed drinks.

“Selling to-go food is hard as it is,” said chef Nina Compton, who has been doing occasional pop-up sales at Bywater American Bistro while her restaurant Compere Lapin remains closed. “Cocktails to-go should be allowed if we can sell beer and wine to-go — selling drinks is the saving grace for restaurants, especially now.”

Alcohol typically makes up between 20 and 30 percent of restaurant sales, revenue more critical than ever in the current COVID-19 hospitality shutdown. With at least 38 states to date expanding off-premise privileges to those holding on-premise licenses — including New York, New Hampshire, Maryland, Illinois, California and Texas — the notion that Louisiana, and especially New Orleans, the city that literally invented the “go cup,” is hamstrung by ATC regulations is troubling to struggling restaurants of all sizes.

“We are being trusted to prepare and package food for delivery and takeout,” said Michael Gulotta, chef/owner of MoPho and Maypop, both currently closed. “What’s the difference with cocktails? If I have a bartender in mask and gloves making a bunch of pre-batched cocktails — which we do anyway, to get through a busy service — how is that different?”

“For restaurants to thrive, we have to bring hospitality experiences to where the customer is — it’s not just about food,” said Robert LeBlanc, whose hospitality company includes Sylvain, Barrel Proof, Cavan, Longway Tavern and Meauxbar. “These are lean times. That $20 or $25 per ticket makes a huge difference. It doesn’t make sense that everybody else can do it and we can’t.”

“It seems silly to me. Why you can do one and not the other?” asked Phil Mosely, who co-owns Blue Oak BBQ in Mid City with partner Ronnie Evans. “A lot of people are struggling. Why not allow them to do as much as they can within the confines of following health guidelines? We’re not pouring shots and inviting people to the bar. But why not let people buy a couple of margaritas with their picnic? This is nothing out of the ordinary of regular business — it’s not outlandish or unprecedented. And at a time when the state and city could be collecting more taxes and helping businesses stay afloat — it’s a real lose/lose.”

Eric Cook, chef/owner of the currently-shuttered Gris-Gris in the Lower Garden District, is another restaurateur bewildered by the current ban on to go and delivered cocktails. Speaking to Eater New Orleans during the first weekend of what should have been Jazz Fest, Cook was glum.

“I budget to lose money in summer — all restaurants do, whether they’re seating 35 or 350. We survive because of times like Jazz Fest; that’s when we make our money. Right now, I’m looking at eight months of summer ahead of me. We are entrusted by the city, the state and our customers to be responsible food handling professionals. We are also responsible alcohol vendors. Take that away — and how can we make it? Let us have the small margins we need to survive.”

Still some restaurants are going rogue, defying the current rules and serving cocktails to-go anyway. “I’m a small local business,” said one owner, who requested anonymity. “Being able to serve drinks is the lifeblood of my achieving my dream. It connects me to the community. I’m staying under the radar — honestly I’m not even making money, but I’m just trying to let people know I’m here. I’m not closed and I want to serve them.”

Eater is tracking the impact of the novel coronavirus on the city’s restaurant industry. Have a story to share? Reach out at nola@eater.com.

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