As bars and restaurants reopen, many of us are thinking that it’s best to stay home a little longer. Recent legislation has made sheltering—and cocktailing—at home even more attractive.
Passed by the Chicago City Council in June, new legislation allows Chicago bars and restaurants to offer pickup and delivery of ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails. This additional service and revenue stream helps bars and restaurants retain at least some staff during the slow down.
Chatting with Erick Williams of Virtue, it’s clear that cocktails to-go could be a big boost to business. “We didn’t sell cocktails to-go before the pandemic,” Williams says, “and now, seventy percent of alcohol sales are in cocktails.”
When I heard about RTD cocktails, my first thought was that bars would offer cocktails with the exotic ingredients most of us do not have at home, like the ambergris that Billy Sunday once mixed into cocktails or the smoked figs used in Violet Hour cocktails. I was wrong. RTD cocktails trend to the simpler classics.
Virtue specializes in homey comfort foods, meals that most of us recognize, such as a pork chop, half-chicken or a mac and cheese, prepared with a chef’s attention to detail and a spirit of making simple dishes shine with superb ingredient choices and sauces. As the menu reflects a lot of well-known favorites, Williams says that Virtue is serving to-go cocktails that don’t “go too far outside the box. At times like these, for our demographic, there’s less appeal in unfamiliar things. If you look at the meal kits some of us are putting out, many include comfort food, prepared using a recognizable technique. Based on that model, we thought it’d be great to give people a taste of Virtue without being in a building, and that taste includes a phenomenal Manhattan or margarita.”
Julia Momose of Bar Kumiko spearheads Cocktails for Hope, which has lobbied for the recent legislation and helps bars and restaurants get required labels and bottles at cost. In an online seminar offered by Momose, she went over new regulations for pickup and delivery of cocktails.
- Cocktails must be contained in a fresh, rigid container, not made of plastic, paper or polystyrene foam, with a tamper-evident cap.
- An affixed label must indicate ingredients, name and license number of the licensee, and a fill date.
- Third-party delivery services are prohibited for cocktails like those prepared in-house at Virtue, Bar Kumiko and other Chicago restaurants.
The prohibition on third-party delivery, however, does not apply to cocktails prepared in a regulated offsite facility. Offsite production, bottling and distribution is provided by companies such as Blue Blazer, a start-up founded by attorneys with longtime hospitality industry experience.
According to Joe Kreeger, one of the founders of Blue Blazer, “Bars were able to sell packaged goods such as beer and wine through Caviar and Grubhub, but they couldn’t use [these services] to deliver cocktails that were made on-site. If you want to avoid the logistical challenges of batching, bottling, sealing and labeling your cocktails, we can do all of that.”
“Because of the way we’re licensed,” Blue Blazer co-founder Brian Troglia says, “we provide restaurants with cocktails they can deliver via third parties.”
Matt Eisler operates multiple Chicago bars and restaurants, including Estereo, Sportsman’s Club and The Revel Room. Heisler Hospitality works with Blue Blazer to manage the steps to produce, package and distribute cocktails to be sold at individual locations, delivered by third parties and offered in retail outlets like Binny’s.
“There’s the capability to do onsite production at some places,” says Eisler, “but for many places, it just makes sense to have production, bottling and so on done by a company like Blue Blazer. This is going to be a much more efficient operation and save us on back-of-the-house labor, but it also gives us the ability to work with third-party delivery services. The majority of to-go sales are delivery, and the majority of deliveries are through third parties. It’s a timely business model.”
Of course, not all bars and restaurants operate on the scale of those under the Heisler Hospitality umbrella. With several locations, on a smaller overall scale, The Goddess and Grocer offer food-friendly cocktails, including a rum punch with fresh orange juice, pineapple and mango, and margaritas with fresh lime and jalapeño juice. The fresh juices require refrigeration for these cocktails. Owner Debbie Sharp says, “We make a few at a time, and we hope people will pre-order them, but we can make them on demand.”
The requirement for tamper-evident caps doesn’t mean you need fancy equipment. Sharp says it can be easy: “We put cocktails in glass mason jars, and we tape the lids closed.”
At Tzuco, Chef Carlos Gaytán and bar manager Andrew Bone told us about what they’re doing to meet the rising demand for their cocktails and dinners while sheltering at home. “We’ve been offering DIY cocktail kits for about two months,” says Gaytán, “and RTD cocktails are being packaged right now. We had the ingredients already here, so all we had to do is buy the bottles. We use the kitchens to sanitize and clear everything and mix the cocktails.”
“We run service for dinner only,” adds Bone, “so during the daytime we batch the cocktails. We’re just getting into offering RTD cocktails, so if we get to the point where we’re processing thousands of orders, we might need to call up a third-party service for support. RTD cocktails are a revenue stream we didn’t have before and they provide an excellent opportunity, and the more iconic the drink, I think, the more successful the orders.”
As at Virtue and The Goddess and Grocer, Tzuco is offering an RTD margarita, one of the most popular and recognizable cocktails. And that kind of drink is what people want most right now: something recognizable, something familiar, the drinks—and food—of the before times.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org