Want to do something radical? Order a cocktail from your local bar or restaurant, and then walk out the door with it. Prior to the pandemic, that act was illegal almost everywhere in America. Cocktails had to be consumed on-premises. They couldn’t be packaged and sold for takeout. And they certainly couldn’t be delivered to people’s homes.
Then the pandemic arrived, and bars and restaurants began shutting down. To create a lifeline for these businesses, more than 30 states began temporarily legalizing the sale of to-go cocktails. In Vermont, it happened on March 19, 2020. That’s the day Sam Nelis knew he’d still have a job.
“We realized that we could bring back some staff and start doing cocktails,” Nelis says. He’s the beverage director for the cocktail bar inside Barr Hill Distillery, a maker of craft gin and vodka in Montpelier, Vt. His team swiftly got to work, serving cocktails in glasses that could then be repurposed in people’s homes, and it saved their business. “If anyone out there is listening,” Nelis says, “I would say, please, keep the to-go cocktails going forever. I don’t know why it was never allowed.”
Nelis may not realize it, but he’s pondering something very important.
There are two good reasons to wonder why to-go cocktails weren’t allowed. The first is about alcohol itself: To-go cocktails were illegal because of a tangled mess of laws that go back a century, and that still dominate the economics of alcohol today. And yet, when you really dig into the way alcohol regulations are changed, to-go cocktails reveal an important lesson about how to create positive change more broadly.
And secondly, why would you want to understand how to create change more broadly? Because that’s what entrepreneurs do in so many parts of their lives—but they may not realize it’s also possible to change laws, and therefore create new opportunities for businesses and consumers.
“Entrepreneurs can have a tremendous impact on the regulatory environment,” says venture capitalist Bradley Tusk, CEO and co-founder of Tusk Venture Partners. He sees it firsthand. He was Uber’s first political adviser, as the company initially navigated a system that protected taxis against almost all forms of competition. Now he invests exclusively in early-stage companies that operate in highly regulated industries, including FanDuel (sports betting), Bird (electric scooters), and Coinbase (cryptocurrency exchange). “The first step,” he says, “is taking politics seriously.”
Of course, that may not sound very appealing. Entrepreneurs rarely get into business to play politics; they do it to solve problems, build something great, and make people happy. But this is why to-go cocktails make for such a perfect case study in how change happens—because unlike complicated businesses like FanDuel or Coinbase, cocktails are simple and straightforward, and consumers are very happy with this newly legal (though still largely temporary) to-go option. In polling done by the National Restaurant Association, upwards of 85 percent of drinking-age consumers say they now want to-go cocktails to become permanently legal. “In my eight years at the restaurant association, I’ve never seen something poll as popular as this,” says Mike Whatley, the association’s VP of state affairs and grassroots advocacy.
As the pandemic draws to a close, there is perhaps no better time to look closely at how laws are changed—because the past year has created a molten environment, when laws were in flux and had to adapt to ever-shifting demands. Telemedicine’s burdensome regulations were eased, for example, as were restrictions on drone deliveries, zoning regulations in many cities, and more. All of these things once seemed permanent. Suddenly they weren’t. And it is likely that at some point in the future, nobody will remember why they were ever not allowed.
In other words, when someone like Nelis asks, “Why isn’t that allowed?,” it can become the first step toward a larger question— and that is “What does it take to change that?”
A lot can be learned from a simple cocktail to go.
Why couldn’t you take a cocktail home in the year 2020? The answer begins more than 100 years earlier, as America drifted toward the mother of all alcohol regulations.
“Prohibition didn’t just happen overnight,” says Jarrett Dieterle, a senior fellow who researches alcohol policy at a think tank called the R Street Institute. “Obviously, national prohibition was a very black-and-white thing, but before that started, on the local level, one county would vote to go dry and another one would be wet.”
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