Stirring up Business with Cocktails To-Go
Bars and restaurants find new mix to their business model
The rules and regulations tied to restaurants and bars during the COVID-19 pandemic have been tumultuous at best. Restrictions have gone from completely closed, to take-out only, to 50 percent capacity, to 25 percent capacity and no bar seating, and now finally back up to 50 percent (and this all only includes establishments that serve food). Needless to say, keeping up with this six-month nightmare is fundamentally worse than keeping up with the Kardashians.
One concession granted by the state in May, however, was that restaurants and bars could now offer cocktails to-go, in hopes of buoying the spirits of some owners.
There were limitations of course — restaurants or bars had to sell food, beverages could only be sold in containers with a secure lid and in quantities from 4 oz. to 64 oz., and all before 11 p.m. They also couldn't ride shotgun with you. They had to be placed in your trunk or backseat — away from passengers. For some though, the offering helped restaurants feel a little less muddled.
"Having the ability to offer cocktails to-go has been a game-changer for our restaurants," emphasizes Annē Lewis, director of marketing for Red Letter Hospitality. "The Skunk & Goat Tavern has continued to have consistent cocktail to-go business, even after we were able to open." For them, it's now part of the norm. "I think the biggest takeaway is the convenience of it. Patrons can get a delicious cocktail by simply doing curbside pick-up [with the necessary precautions] and don't have to worry about making multiple trips to the store to retrieve ingredients. Also, with the current restrictions of not having the ability to enjoy a nice cocktail at a bar, this has given our guests the opportunity to still enjoy their favorite drink, but now just in the comfort of their home."
One of their tried and true takeout favorites? "Lakeshore Lemonade has been on our menu at The Skunk and Goat for the past two to three years. It is a favorite and has turned into a staple at the Tavern. It is house-infused blueberry mint vodka, fresh lemon juice, and house-made simple syrup. It also travels well." As an added convenience, guests can order their cocktails online. "We have pictures of each drink as well for reference." Lewis noted it would be a great bonus if businesses could continue the cocktails to-go once restrictions are lifted. "I think it has given many businesses that little extra boost."
Diana Merski, owner of Coach's Sports Bar and Grill, also agrees the change in regulations has been beneficial to their base.
"We started offering them the same day it was approved. At the time, we could only do to-go food. This really started to save us — you could kind of breathe a little easier and a lot of our regulars started coming back."
Inside Coach's, patrons will find a "Feature Wall" that rotates every month and highlights a series of different drinks. "We've had a Sanitizer, Liquid Marijuana, and two slushie rotating flavors. But our namesake, the Coachella, is definitely one of the most popular. The drink is a bit lighter (Berry Rum and Lemonade) and ombré in design. It's a deep purple at the bottom and gets lighter as it gets to the rim of the glass." (Ombre' is a French term which refers to use of a gradient, or gradual shift in tint and shade).
Even with the challenges, Merski remains hopeful. "We are excited to have sports back this fall and I know our customers are looking forward to watching the NFL again."
Gavin Maus, president and co-owner of Altered State Distillery, experienced things a little differently at the onset of the shutdown. "Right when COVID hit, as a manufacturer we were held to a different restriction. We were allowed to sell to-go drinks immediately."
Recognizing the hardships of others, he's counting his blessings. "We almost hate to say this because we know how difficult it's been for so many, but we have been really very lucky. We were pretty much inundated from the beginning. We had just opened in November, so this helped us immensely."
It wasn't an easy start, however. "We were going 100 miles an hour. We went through multiple slushie machines that didn't work. Many that didn't work as soon as we unpacked them. But we figured it out." They also took time and precision with their drinks. "We didn't use mixes, we did everything from scratch — from in-house simple syrups to house-made coconut cream."
They wanted to do it differently than the convenience stores. "We were doing them in a craft way. When you go to Country Fair and GetGo, those are mixes and are malt liquor or beer-based. We built ours from scratch."
To date, the most popular drinks have been the Creamsicle, Pina Colada, Key Lime, and Gin Punch. "They're our highest selling items. Erie's been incredibly open and we couldn't be more thankful and appreciative of the community."
Before restaurants were allowed to sell cocktails to-go, Room 33 started capitalizing early on in the shutdown by creating craft drinks — without the spirits — and bottling them for takeout. The project inspired the team to develop a concept known as Blind Tiger Spirit Free Cocktails. Lizzy Heffernan, events manager and bartender at 33, was the mastermind behind the initial recipes — with support from Shawn McCall, Room 33 general manager.
"We started with five classic cocktails — Ward 8, Bees Knees, Sidecar, Southside, and Bacardi. Then we found out Bacardi was trademarked and dropped it from the process," explains Heffernan. The group worked with a beverage consultant in Pittsburgh to determine the ingredients that would translate into a shelf-stable product. "We have what we believe to be our final product, but now we are getting samples bottled for others to try," McCall notes. "We need unbiased opinions on it to back up what we believe to be a good product."
The intent behind the project is to market to non-drinkers that are looking for a sophisticated product they can enjoy at home — or at a bar. "As a secondary option, these all mix well with their intended spirits," McCall adds. The labels will highlight stories about the drinks as well as serving size and what it can be mixed with if the patron so chooses."
Heffernan hopes to have the product ready for distribution by the end of the year. "Many give up drinking for the New Year and we think it would be a fitting time to have this on the shelves — if we are able."
Facing a sea of unknowns as restaurants work to move towards continued reopening, and some, a hopeful recovery, this fix gave many a temporary lifeline. Although a push towards permanency of this regulation could provide an opportunity for a reset as many look to a hopeful future, for now we will live in the present and continue to navigate the continually evolving landscape to not only stay afloat, but to continue to keep our patrons and communities safe.
Rebecca Styn is the proprietor of Room 33 Speakeasy. She is also VP of Ventures at Erie Innovation District and recently completed her Ph.D. in Leadership and Organizational Learning from Gannon University. Follow Room 33 on Facebook @room33speakeasy, and follow Rebecca on Twitter at @rstyn.