Restaurants continue to explore off-premise alcohol options to boost bar profits

The National Restaurant Association takes a post-pandemic pulse of the beverage alcohol scene and reveals some interesting trends.
Cocktails to go
Bars are serving up margaritas, mojitos, vodka sodas and other cocktails in to-go cups. /Photograph: Shutterstock

During the pandemic, changes in alcohol laws allowed operators to sell beer, wine and cocktails with carryout orders. It was a lifeline for restaurants at the time and the trend caught on with both consumers and operators. Many states extended the laws post-pandemic and others have since joined in. Twenty states now participate.

“This was the greatest change since prohibition,” said Mike Whatley, VP of State and Local Affairs for the National Restaurant Association, during an alcohol innovation webinar sponsored by the Association on Wednesday. He added that more states are coming on board since the pandemic, with Illinois and Connecticut as recently as the last few weeks. “The laws let operators meet customers where they want to drink, whether it’s dining in or enjoying the experience at home with a takeout meal.”

Post-pandemic alcohol trends 

Customer expectations have changed, Michelle Korsmo, president and CEO of the national Restaurant Association said during the webinar, and pointed out these stats, which were detailed in the report, "On the Menu: Trends in On- and Off-Premises Beverage Alcohol."

T.J.  Oakley, EVP of operations for Main Street Management in Louisville, Ky., started a wine club in 2019 to help grow the business at Cuvee Wine Table, one of his restaurants, he said during the webinar. “We had a hard time pivoting into carryout wine during the pandemic; it didn’t fit our concept. But I realized guests really wanted to continue the experience.”

So Oakley started sending two bottles a month to customers, creating wine tasting experiences at home. The wine club grew from 50 members to 250 in nine months and customers started to purchase more bottles at retail. The jump in retail sales continued post-pandemic, as Cuvee now holds tastings and wine club events in the restaurant. He now has turned a whole wall inside Cuvee into an area selling bottles of wine, teas and wine books.

The retail component has also encouraged guests to make dinner reservations at Cuvee. Both dine-in business and wine club membership have grown exponentially. According to the report, 37% of Millennials drink wine with a meal, higher than Gen Z, Gen X and Baby Boomers.

Aldaco’s Mexican Cuisine in San Antonio, Texas is famous for its margaritas, so owner Blanca Aldaco launched her alcohol-to-go program with single-serve margaritas. Now she’s moving on to the lemon drop and mojitos.

Aldaco continues to offer cocktails to go with takeout orders, “so people can continue the experience of their favorite restaurant at home,” she said during the webinar. “We make it affordable, since these customers are not taking up restaurant real estate or sitting in a chair. People can pick up a cocktail curbside on their way home or order a family meal package along with cocktails for the grownups.”

Aldaco also sells bottles of wine to go at just $5 over cost and frozen margaritas by the liter. Her alcohol-to-go orders remain brisk even though guests have returned to dining-in, and it has become a solid revenue stream for the restaurant.

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