With loosened restrictions, restaurants can sell food and wine pairings to-go while bars can turn into de facto wine shops.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated August 03, 2020
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With the hospitality industry in danger of being sunk by the coronavirus, on Monday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo threw eateries an unexpected life preserver: For the first time, all bars and restaurants with on-premise licenses are being allowed to sell alcohol for off-premise consumption—via both takeout or delivery—essentially turning every booze-selling establishment into a potential de facto wine retailer or cocktail delivery service.

The new guidelines—which became effective Monday night at 8 p.m. “until further notice”—still come with plenty of restrictions. For instance, most of this to-go alcohol must be sold with food (though potato chips and peanuts apply and, if any food is included, you can sell as many drinks as you want). And alcohol must be sold in closed containers during normal business hours. Still, plenty of places jumped on the relaxed policy immediately.

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“We launched about four hours ago, and it suddenly sort of feels like a wine shop,” Justin Chearno, partner and wine director of The Four Horsemen in Brooklyn, told me last night, saying he was “shocked” that the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA) altered their policy. “For how dark everything felt 24 hours ago, it does feel like a little bit of light.”

To take advantage, the small restaurant and wine bar announced the sales on social media and emailed wine lists to customers. Bottles are being sold at retail prices—a great opportunity for customers who might have had their eye on specific selections but were wary about paying the much higher dine-in markup. “This is allowing us to move our inventory to help pay our outstanding bills and help generate cash,” Chearno explained.

Getting back to business also provided a number of silver linings. “There were moments where I actually felt the most normal I’ve felt in a while just because I was looking at wines, talking to guests,” he added. “People are definitely taking deep dives through the list, which is fun.”

Meanwhile, in Manhattan, restaurateur Ariel Arce was fully embracing the idea of selling wine and food for takeout together. “The fact that the SLA decided to offer this to us is a real gift, and I’m really, really surprised that we got this opportunity,” she told me.

Niche Niche—her wine-focused “dinner party” restaurant in Manhattan—is offering to-go wine and dinner pairings at set prices with a fun “wine roulette” angle where they toss in a bottle of their choosing. And at Air’s Champagne Parlor, she has a similar deal but with bubbly. Or if wine is all you’re after, both locations are selling their stocks to-go at retail prices. And next week, Arce is even planning to start working with Uber Eats on delivery.

“It’s a fun new challenge,” she said, explaining that her only real hope was to be able to pay her staff. “We can all look at what is the obvious—that we’re all in a terrible situation together—or we can take this downtime to be creative and just think about how we can keep ourselves busy and service people in New York City.”

Back in Brooklyn, Chearno emphasized the importance of the SLA giving customers a way to support their local restaurants in a time of need—and hopefully a chance to tread water until everything gets back to normal. When asked how long he thought this temporary model was sustainable, he kind of chuckled. “Since no one has ever done this before, and the rules change every day, today is pretty good,” he said. “I have no idea how long this can go on.”

Part of the answer depends on how long New Yorkers are willing to keeping returning to buy wine and other alcoholic beverages. If you have a favorite local restaurant, taking advantage of this new policy is another great way to support them in these trying times. Hopefully, more states with restrictive liquor laws will join in.