Inside Texas' Fight to Legalize Cocktail Delivery During COVID-19

hugo's sangria
Courtesy of Hugo's

On March 18, alcohol restrictions in Texas got a little looser… and a whole lot more complicated. Now, two weeks later, there’s still a desperate push to loosen the restrictions further and keep restaurants in business.

When Governor Greg Abbott’s office issued a press release announcing that, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, restaurants would be allowed to deliver alcoholic beverages to customers, "including beer, wine, and mixed drinks," as long as they accompanied a food purchase, restaurateurs and customers rejoiced. Restaurants began creating last-minute promotions that included everything from single frozen margaritas to gallon jugs filled with batched cocktails and made them available for consumption at home, whether people picked them up or had them delivered.

The only problem: Selling pre-mixed drinks to-go is still illegal, even under the current regulations.

"Many restaurants took that statement as a free pass to start selling gallon jugs or eight-packs of mixed margaritas…"

David Denney, founder of Denney Law Group and President of the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association, has an opinion on how the confusion started. “The Governor probably intended to track the language of the recently-passed (Sept 2019) legislation allowing off-site delivery of alcoholic beverages from MB (mixed beverage) permittees, which allows delivery of beer, wine, or a distilled spirit 'in an original, single-serving container sealed by the manufacturer and not larger than 375ml.'"

“Many, many restaurants, however, took that statement as a free pass to start selling gallon jugs or eight-packs of mixed margaritas, sangria, mimosas, cocktails, etc. to-go, curbside, and in drive-thrus,” Denney added.

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission sent out a clarification of sorts on March 19; it had more specific language, but also didn’t dispel any points regarding mixed drinks from the press release.

“When TABC issued its ‘Industry Notice,’ many spots chose, instead, to continue following the press release, instead of the law. Then TABC started slapping hands,” Denney said. “It’s noteworthy that TABC is getting blamed for not allowing restaurants to sell ‘mixed drinks,’ but isn’t being credited with adding ‘pick-up’ to delivery.”

The worst-case scenario? Guests with mixed drinks in their vehicles can be ticketed for violating the open container law. Establishments selling mixed drinks can also face a multi-thousand-dollar fine and potentially lose their TABC licenses, though Denney said that usually doesn’t happen without a warning first.

jaxon beer garden
Jaxon Beer Garden

This mass confusion, coupled with a desperation to stay in business, has added yet another layer of stress for restaurant owners and employees. Cocktail kits seem to be the easiest solution in the short term, though they come with unique challenges, too.

In Houston, H Town Restaurant Group owner Tracy Vaught has temporarily closed Caracol and Xochi, but Hugo’s and Backstreet Café have added DIY cocktail kits for margaritas and Bloody Marys. The ability to sell batched cocktails by the quart or gallon would make life easier for the restaurant staff and customers, plus potentially boost dramatically reduced sales. “Sales are about 20-25% of normal sales levels," said Vaught. "We are running our restaurants with our salaried managers and waiters as delivery drivers.”

Over at Rainbow Lodge, beverage director Marc Borel created kits with lots of extra touches to recreate the restaurant’s famous cocktails, like a Manhattan kit with vermouth-soaked Luxardo cherries, and a martini kit with lemon twists and blue cheese olives. "We tried to be as thoughtful as possible," said Borel.

“We are running our restaurants with our salaried managers and waiters as delivery drivers.”

At the recently opened JAXON Texas Kitchen and Beer Garden in Dallas, alcohol sales have dropped dramatically.

“We are doing our damnedest, but they are like $150 vs $4000,” said Alex Fletcher, Hospitality Alliance Beverage Director. He and his team created 10 different cocktail options ranging from simple Tito’s and Topo to signature drinks such as the JAXON IPA Old Fashioned.

“Basically we are selling sealed 375ml options with a complete cocktail kit assembled, everything from garnishes to the rim and house made mixes. All the garnishes have been dehydrated to limit any waste and kits are made daily to order.”

Dallas-based On The Rocks Premium Cocktails creates factory-sealed craft beverages, including Aviations and spicy jalapeño-pineapple margaritas. These pre-made cocktails provide restaurants a great solution to not being able to sell mixed drinks made in-house, and some (like Nikky Phinyawatana, owner of Asian Mint) are adding their own twists to give customers something extra. “The Mai Tai kit includes the On The Rocks cocktail," said Phinyawatana, "and we add butterfly pea extract, lychee juice and a lychee nut for garnish.”

bartender at intero
A bartender at Austin's Intero, before the COVID-19 shutdown | Courtesy of Intero

Still, many owners see cocktail kits as a band-aid, not a solution.

Simon Madera, owner of Austin's Taco Flats and La Holly Mezcaleria (which has temporarily closed), doesn’t see cocktail kits as a viable way to offset his 80% drop in sales. “It does not solve the problem. Restaurants and bars like mine have product on the shelf worth from $20,000 to $100,000, why can’t we just sell a Manhattan to our patrons with a taco so we can move through this inventory?”

“Selling pre-made cocktail mix with a mini bottle is crazy, since we don’t carry that stuff regularly," said Madera. "The people in these neighborhoods want their favorite cocktails to support the restaurant, but also tip their favorite bartenders.”

Krystal Craig, managing co-owner/GM & Executive Pastry Chef/Chocolatier at Austin’s Intero will be adding an online mixology class as part of their efforts. It’s one more attempt to improve the 96% drop in alcohol sales she’s seen: “Our devoted regulars check in, stay in touch, and order take out, but you need new faces coming through your establishment to continue and maintain.”

governor abbott
Texas Governor Greg Abbott | Carrington Tatum/Shutterstock

The hope is that Texas will follow a growing number of states, including California, New York, and most recently, Maryland, which have changed regulations to allow the takeout and delivery of cocktails mixed in-house. Ultimately, though, that decision lies with one person: Governor Abbott.

“Any decisions on future waivers or temporary provisions are made by the Office of the Governor," Chris Porter, TABC Public Information Officer, told Thrillist. "TABC’s role is to uphold the decisions of the Legislature and the Governor and to assist the alcoholic beverage industry in understanding and complying with the requirements of state law.”

Attorney Kareem Hajjar has taken up the fight on his own time (and dime) and vowed to press on until changes are made. Shortly after all this started, he created the Margs4LifeTX Facebook group, which has grown to more than 6,000 members as a place to share information, centralize messaging, and rally to start a movement that would get the governor's attention.

“We need to change his mind about this, and since he does not seem to want to do it without political pressure, then it appears that we have to do it ourselves," Hajjar said. "But, that’s the American way, isn’t it?” If he can get a wave of support for this from Texans, somewhere in the 2 million range he hopes, he will take it directly to Governor Abbott. "He can either be a hero for Texas… or not. His choice."

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Steven Lindsey has lived in Texas his entire life and been covering the food scene in Dallas-Fort Worth since 2002. He loves stiff cocktails -- even weak ones in a pinch -- and loves to travel, which he writes about for several publications and his own travel review website devoted to vacationing without children.