To Fight Virus Slump, Neighborhood Restaurants Turn Into Liquor Stores
At the best of times, there isn’t much money to be made selling food. It’s an open secret that fine dining establishments are kept afloat on a sea of alcohol. One of the very few consolations in the nationwide closure of restaurants over the coronavirus has been the fast change in laws by many states’ liquor authorities to allow the sale of booze to go on at places that have a liquor license.
Liquor sales not only increase much-needed revenue streams, but also help restaurants preserve their identities, settle the jangled nerves of customers, and occasionally have a little fun.
“Regulars are getting their regular fix, as it were,” says Danny Rojo, chef and owner of restaurant Lot 2 in Brooklyn, N.Y., about customers seeking their usual order. “Though I have to acknowledge a palpable sense of ‘I need a drink’ vibes. No one has turned down an offer of a socially distant shot in a single-use plastic container when I’ve offered it.”
But even if people are drinking enthusiastically, they aren’t doing so in dining-in volume, says Rojo, noting that last week beverage sales were about 12% of his current revenue—12% that wouldn’t be there if takeout alcohol wasn’t permitted, but “far from the panacea some were touting it as.” Still, he says, “my expectations were modest to grim, so I’ve been delighted.”
At the Clam in Manhattan’s West Village, which has been transformed into a weekends-only seafood market, Joey Campanaro and David Price sell portioned fish fillets, chowder, and to-go- cups of cocktails and wine for $8. “We pour a very generous portion—like a double,” Campanaro says. “People walk by the restaurant, stop in, get a cocktail, go to their destination, and stop for another cocktail on the way back.” A selection of wines by the bottle chosen by sommelier Lisa Komara are available. All are discounted 30% off the menu price, which is higher than retail (as a rule, restaurant mark-up is at least twice the price of wholesale) but still represents a sale to most passersby.
At Pacific Standard Time in Chicago, owners Josh Tilden and Erling Wu-Bower figured their customers would be hesitant to leave their houses. “So we strategized about how to make it a one-stop shop.” What they came up with were $40 family meals, with the option to add bottles of wine or liquor, each adorned with a roll of toilet paper on the neck. “Right now we’re seeing 13.5% sales from alcohol, down from around 35% during regular times. Our sales are down 80%-plus from where they were a year ago,” Tilden says.
New York’s Otto Enoteca e Pizzeria has simplified the wine-choosing process by offering eight bottles, all priced at $20, which is around the price they retail for. At Odette in Florence, Ala., the half-dozen bottles for sale are also $20 each; they accompany the family-meal menu. “We are allowed to sell bottles of liquor up to 750 milliliters. Since we’re known for our liquor and bourbon selection, we jumped at this opportunity,” owner Celeste Pillow says. Cocktail kits, outfitted with housemade mixers and garnishes also sell well, like the $55 Aperol Spritz box. (It’s a notable change for a town that was dry into the 1980s.)
At Manhattan’s Tokyo Record Bar, the wine choices are more elaborate. While food is simple—for example, a $20 chicken teriyaki bento box—to-go beverages range from a $30 or $40 sparkling wine to $60 Champagne and sake, and even a $75 “Champagne wildcard.”
Wine and sake sales have made the difference for places like Tokyo Record Bar. “We never intended on doing takeout ever; our kitchen is the size of a MetroCard,” says Ariel Arce, who also owns Air’s Champagne Parlor. She figured people would balk at takeout pricing for Champagne. “But people walk in or DM me with their budget, and that is so cool. We have had vintage allocated [hard-to-find] wines walk out the door. Right now, someone wants to buy some 1981 Charles Heidsieck if I have it in stock,” she says about a bottle that retails for $710 at Air’s.
At Jaguar Sun in downtown Miami, an up-and-coming place known for superlative cocktails, natural wines, and delicate pastas, co-owner Will Thompson sees wine sales as a tourniquet. “Our guests want their favorite drink that they order three times a week, not which of our 12 reds will go with the cacio e pepe. It is absolutely not enough business to stop us from losing money, but the more we can do, the slower we bleed out. Hopefully we can keep bleeding until things start to make sense again.”
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