In many locales, cocktails-to-go are here to stay—a decision consumers and operators are toasting.

When the pandemic temporarily shuttered dining rooms in 2020, more than 35 states issued emergency orders allowing to-go sales of cocktails and other alcoholic beverages—an important lifeline for struggling restaurants. At its pandemic high point, 39 states permitted cocktails-to-go in some way.

In many locales, cocktails-to-go are here to stay—a decision that consumers and operators are toasting. Currently, 16 states and Washington, D.C. have made cocktails-to-go permanent; 14 passed temporary measures extending their policies, according to the National Restaurant Association’s State of the Restaurant Industry Mid-Year Report, which released Aug. 26.


The 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry Mid-Year Update is now available for download


El Arroyo in Austin, Texas, is among those restaurants that embraced the change, selling margaritas-to-go accompanied by chips and salsa. “Alcohol-to-go is exactly what restaurants need and Texans want,” Ellis Winstanley, president of Cozumel Empresas, the holding company for El Arroyo, told the Texas Restaurant Association. “Restaurants are about experiences, and alcohol-to-go lets restaurants give their customers a more complete experience in the comfort of their home.”

In states where alcohol-to-go is legal, 89% of operators who can serve alcohol are selling it, according to an Association survey last year. The high-margin drinks are boosting the bottom line for many operators. On average, 5% to 10% of off-premises sales can come from alcohol-to-go, the report states.

Three tips on how to build an alcohol-to-go program with staying power:

1. Learn your local regulations. Find out which alcoholic beverages can be served to-go, including any limits on the alcohol content per drink and the number of drinks. Some states require food to be sold along with the order. Some allow only carryout. Others prohibit third-party delivery specifically. Be sure to comply with any packaging requirements. For example, Georgia requires that cocktails be in a sealed tamper-evident container with no openings or straw holes and with a label that identifies the business that made the cocktail. Be aware of when any temporary extensions expire, and check whether your local jurisdiction has any regulations that supersede state law.

2. Promote your portable potables. Use social media and email marketing to let the public know you offer one-stop shopping for their dining and drinking pleasure. A recent email from California Pizza Kitchen invites customers to “enjoy happy hour to go” by adding wine or beer to their favorite takeout meals. Highlight your cocktails, beer selection and wine list online, giving tips on food pairings. When the holidays roll around, consider offering package deals that include a bottle of champagne or a cocktail kit.

3. Serve responsibly. Train your staff to check customer IDs for pickup and delivery orders; verify that the purchaser is 21 or older. Never provide alcohol to anyone visibly intoxicated. If your local jurisdiction allows third-party delivery of alcohol, work closely with these delivery companies to ensure they follow proper procedures. The National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe Alcohol program provides training on responsible alcohol service.


This article is brought to you by Sage Intacct, sponsor of the National Restaurant Association's State of the Restaurant Industry Mid-Year update