Politicians are quietly creating a new route for restaurants to sell wine

Working Lunch: It's an often-overlooked channel with plenty of room for growth, according to a lobbyist in the trenches.

Anyone who doubts the revenues of a restaurant can be profoundly affected by the mindset of its state and local politicians should catch this week’s episode of Working Lunch, a podcast focused on political issues of interest to the industry.

One of the guests on the installment was Mike Whatley, the government affairs veteran who works with state restaurant association lobbyists as VP of state affairs and grassroots advocacy for the National Restaurant Association.  He’s worked on that front for more than a decade, and his career history lists no experience in running or working within restaurants in the years beforehand.

Yet that didn’t stop the operations virgin from flagging an often-overlooked sales opportunity that’s caught his attention while trying to shape alcohol-service regulations at the state level. In part with his help, 22 states now permit restaurants to sell adult beverages to go, with 10 more appearing swayable.

Lawmakers and regulators are open to the conversation today, having seen that chaos didn’t erupt when alcohol to go was permitted during the pandemic.

Much of the dialogue has focused on mixed cocktails to go. “An aspect of alcohol-to-go that’s overlooked is wine-to-go,” Whatley told Working Lunch co-host Joe Kefauver. “Wine-to-go is a huge part of that conversation, and there’s really room to grow there.”

He explained that his conversations with some lawmakers and regulators often touch on two ways for restaurants to sell wine for at-home consumption.

“It’s two-fold,” Whatley said. “It’s bottles of wine to go, and that’s sort of a wine club approach.”

An establishment hosts a wine dinner or trains its servers to match an outstanding wine with a dish. “You’re then able to buy bottles of the wine to go for consumption later,” he continues.

The other sales route some politicians are willing to allow is wine sold to go by the glass. “There’s really room to grow there,” said Whatley.

He notes that research recently released by the association shows the by-the-glass approach is particularly feasible for operations whose guests want to drink better wine but are daunted by the price of a whole bottle.

The episode also touches on what issues of the moment will be addressed during the restaurant association’s Public Affairs Conference, when the group brings members of its state affiliates to Capitol Hill to meet with their congressmen and senators.

Download the episode from wherever you usually get your podcasts.

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