CHICAGO — It’s illegal in Illinois for bars and restaurants to sell pre-mixed cocktails via delivery and curbside pickup. But a growing number of bar/restaurant owners hit hard by the coronavirus shutdown are fighting to change that.
Julia Momose, partner at the Japanese-inspired West Loop spots Kumiko and Kikkō, founded the group Cocktails for Hope to raise awareness and push local leaders to allow the sale of to-go cocktails in Chicago. The restaurant/bar owner also launched an online petition, which had gained 8,770 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.
“This isn’t about getting a couple extra bucks in the pocket, this is about saving businesses, saving jobs and helping jumpstart the economy,” Momose said.
So far, officials haven’t gotten on board, but they haven’t dismissed the idea, either.
Asked about the law at a Tuesday press conference, Mayor Lori Lightfoot passed the buck: “That’s not something that we can mandate at the local level. That’s gotta be a change that comes at the state level,” she said.
Gov. JB Pritzker, when asked a similar question at his Tuesday press conference, didn’t have much to add: “I don’t know that it’s a state issue. I haven’t thought about mixed drinks being served at the curb, but I’m happy to look into it,” he said.
Chicago bar and restaurant owners with a tavern liquor license or a consumption on premises for incidental activity license can legally sell and deliver liquor — but it must be sealed and in its original packaging. That’s state law, according to Isaac Reichman, spokesman for the city’s department of business affairs and consumer protection.
It’s also a critical sticking point for establishments wanting to sell and deliver pre-mixed cocktails.
The Illinois Liquor Control Commission posted an “enforcement reminder” on March 19 that was updated on March 31.
In the bulletin, the commission said allowing the sale of pre-mixed cocktails to-go and for delivery violates the law that requires original packaging, and increases the likelihood of vehicle code violations regarding open containers and intoxicated driving incidents. It also increases the likelihood of product contamination.
But the message is not reaching many of the bars and restaurants throughout Chicago and is creating confusion among industry folks. Some aren’t aware of the law or are choosing to ignore it and risk fines. Others are finding ways around it and selling cocktail kits with full bottles of liquor.
Momose said cocktail kits, while inventive, don’t generate sustainable profit margins. She offered an example: An Old-fashioned kit serving 15-16 people costs $50. That means the price per serving is $3.30. But if you instead applied the price of a typical Old Fashioned cocktail — $13 — the price jumps to $195 for the same quantity of product.
“That difference is $145. Sales would grow exponentially,” she said.
A couple of Chicagoans recently started an Instagram business where they deliver pre-mixed cocktails to peoples’ doorstep in full costumes, presumably as to not get in trouble with the law.
All of the aforementioned scenarios end up hurting bars, restaurants and industry professionals, when officials could just change the law and instantly create an even playing field for everyone, Momose said.
Momose said she and other bar/restaurant owners simply want a temporary change to the law. Oregon, Virginia and Missouri have temporarily lifted their bans on pre-mixed cocktail delivery due to the pandemic.
“We’re asking them to acknowledge that the landscape has changed and the restrictions that have been placed on us need to change so we’re still able to operate,” she said. “It’s a really complex and convoluted system. We just want them to recognize the fact that cocktails aren’t evil. If people can sell full bottles of liquor, then we can safely sell a sealed cocktail.”
In the coming weeks, Momose plans to grow Cocktail for Hope’s network and continue to push officials to make the temporary change.
“I’m the bar owner, the small business owner who is just trying to get their voice heard and hopefully help my colleagues and friends.”
Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.