Burgers and broasted chicken are still available for takeout at one of Eric Mann’s favorite restaurants, the Block Food + Drink in St. Louis Park.
But not the Old Fashioned, his “go-to” drink and one of the restaurant’s signature cocktails.
“I could try to make it at home, but it would taste terrible,” Mann said. “I am going to miss it for the time being.”
With Minnesota restaurants temporarily closed for on-premise dining during the coronavirus pandemic, there are more takeout options than ever. Yet, a significant chunk of many restaurants’ menus is off-limits. In normal circumstances, beer, wine and mixed drinks could account for up to half of many restaurants’ sales. Not in the era of COVID-19.
In pursuit of much-needed cash flow, industry leaders are hoping to see that rule changed. They’re appealing to Gov. Tim Walz and the Legislature, asking for a temporary allowance to sell and deliver sealed containers of alcohol for off-premise drinking, much like liquor stores and some small craft breweries already do. An online petition supporting alcohol to go in Minnesota has more than 13,000 signatures.
Walz said at a news conference last Friday that he was exploring the option, while also considering public safety. “We will look into it, and I’ll make sure that we are following up,” he said. This week, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter signed on to a letter to the governor and legislative leaders, along with a dozen other mayors, asking for temporary alcohol sales and delivery for restaurants, bars, microdistilleries and larger craft breweries.
Other states that have shut down dining to stop the spread of the coronavirus — New York, Texas, Colorado — have taken steps to allow alcoholic beverages to go. It’s not a free-for-all; alcohol, sealed and in limited quantities, must accompany food orders.
“Based on what’s happening in other states, I think it can happen relatively quickly if the state decides that’s the direction it wants to head,” said Ben Wogsland, director of government relations for Hospitality Minnesota, the association of the restaurant and hotel industry.
The board of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, which represents both restaurants and liquor stores, came out in support of what it’s calling “takeout liquor” with some guidelines: a maximum of 12 cans of beer; a limit of two bottles of wine; and no hard liquor.
“Bars and restaurants are facing a devastating situation with little income and job losses, and this seems like a small step to take to help those restaurants,” said Leslie Rosedahl, spokeswoman for the MLBA.
“It’s not going to be the silver bullet,” Rosedahl added.
But it could, at the very least, help restaurants clear out tens of thousands of dollars in bottles they can’t return, keep some staff employed and pay their vendors.
“I have $34,000 worth of food and liquor inventory, and $16,000 of that I can’t use,” said Doug Jasken, owner of DJ’s Tap House in Alexandria, Minn. “I’m not looking to make a profit. I just want to exchange that for cash so I can continue to pay my staff.”
At Pig Ate My Pizza in Robbinsdale, customers can already pick up 32-ounce crowlers of beer made in the restaurant’s on-site brewery.
Chef and co-owner Mike Brown would like to have the same option at his other restaurants, Travail Kitchen & Amusements and Minnesota BBQ Co., as well as the ability to sell wine and mixed drinks. He sees it as a lifeline for struggling restaurants.
“It’s not just about us,” Brown said. “Every restaurant is screwed right now, and the only untapped resource they probably have is their wine list.”
Allowing takeout liquor sales would be a “free stimulus” that would trickle down to purveyors, too. Wine vendors, for example, have no sales on the horizon as long as dining rooms remain closed. “If you look at the ecosystem of how this industry works, it’s extremely important,” Brown said.
And customers want it, too.
“We’ve gotten a ton of requests” for alcoholic beverages with takeout orders, said Luke Derheim, director of operations for Craft & Crew Hospitality, which owns the Block. “If people were able to order it, it would give them a sense of normalcy, like they were out at a restaurant.”
In the meantime, restaurant bars and distillery cocktail rooms are coming up with ideas to re-create the old drinking experience, even if they can’t deliver the main ingredient.
At DJ’s Tap House, Bloody Marys are a popular Sunday order. So, Jasken is selling the mix, without alcohol, in a 32-ounce jar, along with toppings that include a bacon cheeseburger slider and a fried pickle. Customers can add their own vodka at home. Last Sunday, the first since Minnesota restaurants were ordered to close their doors to on-premise dining, they sold out.
The bar at Spoon & Stable is helping takeout customers become their own mixologist with cocktail kits containing housemade syrups, garnishes and instructions. A $25 Rum Old Fashioned kit makes 10 drinks and includes 10 dried pineapple chips, roasted pineapple demerara syrup and bitters. Just add the rum.
“We’re staying away from the more complicated cocktails, things with eggwhites and whatnot,” said bar manager Jessi Pollack. For the drinks in the kits, “you wouldn’t even need to own any cocktail tools. Just a spoon, glass and ice, and you’re good to go.”
In Minneapolis, Norseman Distillery’s cocktail room is closed for now. But on Saturdays, customers can pick up one 375ml bottle of a spirit, along with new canned mixers and bitters blends named after Minnesota resorts. Ice is included.
Creative director Alec Prince dubbed them Staycation Cocktail Kits. “Many of the drinks evoke tropical or escapist themes, and yet, we are obviously not doing and traveling for pleasure at the moment,” Prince said. (Proceeds from the kits go to the distillery’s production of hand sanitizer, which it is donating to people in need and first responders.)
And continuing a trend that began before well before the pandemic, but couldn’t be more timely, Tattersall Distilling is turning out bottled cocktails. Last week, the Minneapolis distillery released the Salty Dog, with grapefruit peel, ginger, juniper and vodka. Mix at home with fresh grapefruit juice.
Planning ahead, Brown is looking into the containers he’d use to bottle and seal cocktails should the governor allow it, so people can order Pig Ate My Pizza’s popular Ron Burgundy cocktail with dinner.
Luke Shimp, president and owner of Red Cow and Red Rabbit, also wants to sell cocktails, in addition to wine and beer. “I think if we’re going to do it, we should do all of it,” he said. “We have wonderful mixologists.”
Things are more complicated for bars that don’t have a food program. Frozen pizza makes up most of the menu at Meteor Bar in Minneapolis. Even if he would be allowed to sell takeout cocktails without food, co-owner Robb Jones isn’t sure it would be the right move.
“For a business like mine, and others that aren’t necessarily equipped to do to-go things and have the capital to support it, we have to decide: Is it worth the investment?” Jones said.
Some liquor stores do deliver, independently or through apps like Instacart. Those that sell food have another advantage. Surdyk’s in Minneapolis, for example, is selling family meals for pickup — with wine pairings. Should restaurants and bars be granted the ability to sell full bottles of wine and beer, they’d be in direct competition.
That doesn’t deter John Wolf from supporting it. The owner of Chicago Lake Liquors wants to see restaurants get the help they need.
“We’ve been the beneficiaries of them being closed, so how do we just turn a blind eye and go, ‘They can’t do this and that?’ ” he said. “If it makes sense, I’m all for that.”
Owner Matty O’Reilly cites the law that allows customers to take home an unfinished bottle of wine from a restaurant with a cork in it. So, he is opening bottles, pouring a bit out and closing them back up for customers who get curbside pickup. He admits it’s a “gray area” based on something that is “perfectly legal.”
“If anything, it’s really just a sign of how desperate we are for help,” O’Reilly said. “What I bought 28 days ago is sitting in my restaurant and the invoices keep coming. So what else am I going to do? I don’t think people really understand how dire the situation is.”