Cocktails-to-go: Temporary legalization has Hudson Valley restaurant owners saying 'cheers'
Remember Cuomo chips? Well now it's Hochul hors d'oeuvres.
Restaurant owners in Rockland and Westchester are thrilled about a recent change, announced by Gov. Kathy Hochul on April 9, that temporarily legalizes alcohol to go.
So too, is the New York State Restaurant Association (NYRSA), which said it will help restaurants dig out of the hole created by the pandemic.
In the early days of COVID-19, New York restaurants were given the green light to sell to-go cocktails – accompanied by a snack – as a way to help business while in-person dining was shut down. That ended in June, 2021. The current law allows the sale of sealed takeout alcoholic drinks provided they're accompanied by a "substantial food order," through 2025.
Hochul announced the change as part of the state's 2023 budget, yet many local restaurateurs were unaware of it until contacted by lohud.com.
"I'm happy with the governor's decision, but wish it was allowed this entire time," said Tom Lynch, owner of Casa del Sol in Nyack. "During the height of the pandemic in 2020, this (alcohol to go) was essential. I wouldn’t have stayed open only doing to-go dinners."
Reinstating cocktails to go has been an initiative many owners were clamoring for, as it had the potential to bring in revenue at a time when many restaurants and bars were floundering. The initial program was established, and then eliminated, under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
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The new law went into effect immediately when it was announced Saturday and is in effect until April 2025 with, according to the governor's press release, "appropriate limitations." That means no bottle sales and accompanying to-go food in sealed containers. Every alcoholic purchase must be accompanied with food.
Though Lynch says he's still fuzzy on some of the new guidelines, he's excited to get started again. "Now, we can get creative not only with the cocktails, but with the to-go containers," he said.
His hope is that beer and liquor companies start to provide restaurants with sealable cups or containers. "It would be great advertising for them and it will help keep our costs down," Lynch added.
Frankie Rodriguez, beverage director at Greca Mediterranean Kitchen + Bar in White Plains, is prepped and ready. He and owner Constantine “Dino” Kolitsas made the investment in pouches and labels months ago, waiting for the legislation to go back into effect. "We knew it was something lawmakers were working on so wanted to be prepared," Rodriguez said.
Added Kolistas: "Eighty percent of our cocktails are signature cocktails, using Greek spirits, so we're excited that our takeout customers can still enjoy the Greca dining experience."
Monty Gerrish of Milton Point Provisions in Rye is "chomping at the bit" to sell his frosé, boozy milkshakes, rum punches and Arnold Palmers with vodka.
"Aside from my wedding day, this just may be the happiest day of my life," he said. "I have the containers, I have the storage area and I just got a grab-and-go fridge, which can work for food items."
He said the ups and downs of the pandemic have been mentally and physically draining and this change will help restaurants to move forward. "We need the cash flow," he said. "I think this will really help."
Nicholas Lambos of AquaTerra Grille and the ghost kitchen Pita Greek in Pearl River adds that the ability to sell his cocktails in to-go containers enhances the dining experience for those who are still not comfortable with in-house dining or prefer the convenience of takeout meals.
"Our sangrias, margaritas and martinis are tough to make since few people have the spirits and juices in their homes," he said. "Not to mention the special touch from our mixologists."
What is 'substantial' food?
The requirement of selling a to-go food item with alcohol is a non-issue say owners.
"Having to sell substantial food is a compromise we're happy to make if it means adding another revenue stream," said Bobby Harris, owner of The Barley House in Thornwood, Barley on the Hudson in Tarrytown and The Barley Beach House in Rye. "Our guests understood the food requirement in the past and hopefully there are no issues going forward."
The food component, which is left up to the discretion of individual restaurants, has some owners scratching their heads. "I'm not 100% clear on the 'substantial food,' but I was planning on any appetizer or entrée," said Lynch. "I know it has to be more than chips and salsa."
More specifically, the New York State Liquor Authority just defined a "substantial food item" as "sandwiches, soups or other foods, whether fresh, processed, precooked or frozen."
For many, the initiative is a step in the right direction. But others, such as Travis Koester of The Henry in Nyack and Lamb of AquaTerra, still prefer people in-person dining rather than getting items to go. Creating an experience, they say, is part of what the hospitality business is all about. "I support anything that will help boost sales, but I'm unsure if cocktails to go will really move the needle," said Lamb.
"I hope I'm wrong."
So far he seems to be in the minority. Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of the NYSRA, issued a statement in response to the new legislation which noted, "The agreement on alcohol to-go between the Governor and Legislature is the single most important piece of relief that the state has granted the restaurant industry since the pandemic began.
"This relief will do more than help us dig out from that hole. It will breathe new life into a hospitality scene that's still sputtering."
Jeanne Muchnick covers food and dining. Click here for her most recent articles and follow her latest dining adventures on Instagram @lohud_food or via the lohudfood newsletter.
This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Alcohol-to-go return in Rockland, Westchester: What to know