Struggling Bars and Restaurants Look for Relief in ‘Cocktails for Hope' Amid Pandemic

Thousands of people, including dozens of lawmakers, have signed a petition, urging the governor to approve premixed to-go cocktails

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Bar and restaurant owners are working to change the laws around selling cocktails to-go to provide temporary relief and a boost in revenue during the extended stay home order in Illinois.

Cocktails for Hope is a grassroots initiative advocating for the sale of premixed cocktails to go. Co-founder Julia Momose started a petition that now has more than 11,000 signatures, including those of nearly 30 state lawmakers.

"Cocktails provide far better margins than anything else we sell," said Momose, who also owns Kumiko in Chicago's West Loop. "An emblem of hope, cocktails have always been something people gather around."

Momose says the ability to sell cocktails would allow her to hire back furloughed staff. She and many other small restaurant owners are concerned that without this opportunity, many in the service industry won't survive.

"The momentum is building. We need Gov. Pritzker to realize we are here. This is an issue he can use to effectively bring about positive change," said Momose. "He lays blame on the virus, but the fact is the virus is here. The virus is reality. There are ways to work through it. Not just stopping and shutting down and giving up. There are ways to adjust the laws."

Some laws have already been altered since the start of the pandemic. The Illinois Liquor Control Commission (ILCC) says it has issued a host of directives to assist bars and restaurants, including allowing for the sale of cocktail kits and alcoholic liquor in original, unopened packaging for "to go" and delivery, based upon local liquor authority approval.

A spokesperson for the agency says allowing mixed cocktails to go would "require the easing of ILCC statute and vehicle code enforcement."

In its most recent bulletin responding to requests for to-go cocktails, the ILCC said, "allowing the sale of premixed cocktails to-go and for delivery violates current original packaging statutes, increases the likelihood of vehicle code violations regarding open containers and intoxicated driving incidents. It also increases the likelihood of product contamination."

An attorney representing Cocktails for Hope says there is a solution.

"We believe the trunk of the car should not be considered the passenger area. And if it’s an SUV or mini van, we believe having it in the back or an area not accessible would take care of the problem," said Sean O'Leary, who is representing the group voluntarily.

"We’ve been told 'no' twice by the ILCC, and we’re still resilient," said O'Leary. "There’s been a groundswell of support for this."

Including from restaurants outside the city, like Maple Tree Inn in suburban Homewood. The restaurant was issued a cease and desist letter in April for serving premixed cocktails, despite approval at the local level from the town's mayor. Maple Tree Inn received authorization to sell their bottled and sealed drinks March 27th, launched sales on the 29th and was ordered to stop on April 1.

"We will not survive. It’s as simple as that," said Maple Tree Inn co-owner Erich Wennberg.

The restaurant is still serving takeout food orders but is pleading with the governor and state to allow the sale of to-go cocktails.

"It will deliver a huge, needed cash infusion to bars and restaurants not only in Chicago but in Illinois. That cash infusion comes with zero dollar liability to taxpayers," said Wennberg. "We need help."

At his daily briefing, the governor was asked about allowing premixed cocktails to go. He said he is listening to the experts, and his team is looking into it. He says he is not making changes now but will consider options during Phase 3 of his "Restore Illinois" plan to reopen.

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