Atakeout sign outside a Patchogue eatery.

Atakeout sign outside a Patchogue eatery. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

Gov. Kathy Hochul's proposal to allow restaurants to sell drinks to go with reasonable limitations was met with great enthusiasm all across New York. Restaurant owners and workers applauded the added revenue this will bring. The public celebrated the chance to once again get their favorite drinks to accompany their takeout meals — re-creating the restaurant experience when they have their restaurant meals at home.

But New York's liquor store lobby has already begun a campaign of misinformation and distortion in an effort to thwart this desperately needed and extremely popular proposal. Its basic premise is that allowing restaurants to sell drinks to go will result in a threat to the public health and that it will be economically devastating to liquor stores.

There is no evidence, however, that the governor's proposal will result in an increase in underage sales, drunken driving, or any other public health problems. Representatives of the liquor store lobby throw these assertions around without offering any support for their claims — because there is none.

Economically, the pandemic has been a major boon to the liquor store business — sales have increased 34% over the past two years. Before the pandemic, liquor stores sold 76% of all liquor in New York State and now they sell nearly 85%. And remember, during a portion of this period, restaurants were allowed drinks-to-go sales, showing their fabricated claims of economic devastation are not grounded in reality or experience.

Restaurant drinks-to-go sales do not cannibalize liquor store sales — they preserve restaurant alcohol sales. The ability to sell drinks to go means that restaurants don’t lose the sales they would’ve had if the customer had dined in the restaurant. The sales shift from restaurants to liquor stores over the past two years demonstrates clearly that restaurants have lost sales to liquor stores — we just want to stop the bleeding. In the face of these economic realities, it’s hard to understand why liquor stores object to this small change.

And while the liquor store lobby frequently claims that these laws have been unchanged since the repeal of Prohibition in 1934, in just the past 20 years the rules governing liquor stores have been changed permitting the use of online third-party delivery services, allowing stores to open on Sundays, letting stores conduct wine and liquor tastings, and authorizing stores to hold consumer education courses. Restaurant advocates didn’t oppose these expanded privileges because they didn’t have a significant impact on restaurant sales, just like allowing restaurants to sell drinks to go won’t impact liquor stores.

One provision of the law that hasn’t changed since Prohibition is the restriction on new liquor store licenses that give liquor stores a geographic territorial monopoly to protect them from competition. Under typical circumstances, the State Liquor Authority will only issue a new liquor store license if the nearby stores report steadily increasing sales. However anti-competitive and outdated this provision may be, it does serve as a layer of protection against their concerns — in the very unlikely event they come to pass.

New York’s restaurants continue to struggle. While the industry rebounded for a part of 2021, employment still remains more than 20% below pre-pandemic levels. That’s more than 135,000 jobs still not filled. Allowing drinks-to-go sales will be a small, but worthwhile, help to struggling businesses. It’s a simple and popular measure government can take to sustain the state’s hospitality industry — no matter what the liquor store lobby says.

This guest essay reflects the views of Scott Wexler, executive director of the Empire State Restaurant & Tavern Association.