Time to break out the fancy barware, St. Louis – for the duration of COVID-19, you can now buy sealed curbside cocktails from local businesses.
Earlier this week, the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) temporarily suspended the state law requiring that alcohol be sold in its original packaging to allow restaurants to package up pre-batched cocktails for sale. The suspension, which is currently valid through at least May 15 statewide, had been highly debated on social media and local news. KTVI-Fox 2 News reporter Chris Hayes even delved into the issue in a recent Fox Files investigation.
In St. Louis, the source of all of the conflict came after Adam Tilford, co-owner of local favorite Mission Taco Joint, was contacted by the ATC and told to cease serving to-go Margaritas. The way Missouri liquor laws are written, Tilford could sell a jug of housemade Margarita mix and sealed bottles of tequila, but not combine the two for to-go sales.
Mission Taco Joint wasn’t the only restaurant or bar selling pre-batched cocktails curbside, but Tilford says the ATC told him that someone in the community reported the violation. Resolute to abide by the law once made aware of it, Mission ceased offering the curbside Margs after just two days.
“We moved to the Margarita kits, which unfortunately we have to sell for a lot more money because it’s a whole bottle of tequila,” Tilford says. “So because of that, our sales dropped drastically on our Margaritas, and that was just terrible – we’re just trying to hit payroll and keep people employed right now and we took a huge hit in sales.”
During just the Wednesday and Thursday prior to the ATC phone call, across its four locations in St. Louis and Kansas City, Mission made $9,000 in sales on the pre-batched Margaritas. In the following entire week after the restaurant transitioned to offering only kits, those sales dropped to $6,000. With the kits not providing a viable solution, Tilford, who didn’t have a personal network of elected officials to readily call upon for help, endeavored to push back against the law, starting with an update about the situation on social media.
“We made a lot of noise early on,” Tilford says. “That Friday I may have tweeted out that we got shut down by the state and that other states were providing waivers for this, because governors in several other states had already, and if you feel Missouri should get a waiver, contact the ATC. So people did – I heard they had hundreds of calls – so that drew a lot of attention.”
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, among other elected officials and restaurant owners, joined in the chorus of supportive tweets, but Tilford knew he needed to have these discussions off of social media as well. “I wasn’t really gaining any ground with state reps; I don’t really have any contacts there, so, on our end, I kind of just kept making noise and tried to get people alert and get people to do something.”
Across town and unbeknownst to Tilford at the time, another seasoned restaurant owner was working to suspend the same liquor law for his business. The two would soon be connected by Hayes, however, as the reporter investigated the issue for Fox Files.
“Neither of us knew it, but we were both working on this simultaneously in our own ways,” Tilford says. “So we chatted and compared notes on what we had both done.”
Benjamin Brown has run Satchmo’s Bar & Grill in Chesterfield for seven years. He first became interested in pursuing a suspension for his business to sell pre-batched cocktails for curbside pickup after seeing Eureka Mayor Sean Flower sign an executive order allowing businesses in his municipality to do so.
“It got me thinking, and I thought, ‘I’m going to really push and see what I can do in Chesterfield locally,” Brown says. “I’ve kind of been involved in grassroots politics for a while and I’ve been in the restaurant business for years and years. So I know a lot of people in the restaurant community and a lot of people involved in the political realm, but I didn't know of anyone else besides myself that I knew that was deeply involved in both.”
Brown says he didn’t know if he’d be successful in trying to pursue the suspension, but he absolutely wanted to try. He reached out to a friend who sits on the Chesterfield City Council and asked for his advice. From there he contacted the Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce and Chesterfield Mayor Bob Nation. He says those initial conversations didn’t seem to make much progress, and although his business is in Chesterfield, he decided to next reach out to elected officials in Franklin County, where he lives.
Unfortunately, that didn’t prove fruitful either. Because a suspension would involve temporarily waiving state law, county elected officials were reluctant to mandate one. Having struck out in Chesterfield and in Franklin County, Brown realized his best path forward was reaching out to state officials.
“Initially I don’t know if I would have just gone straight to the state; I never would have thought I’d be capable of doing anything there, but I kind of worked my way up to it, and I thought, ‘OK, now the only path to victory is straight to the Governor’s office.’”
Brown had already started an online petition for his cause, and his next step was contacting the media to help get the word out. One of the reporters he contacted was Chris Hayes, who would soon introduce him to Tilford at Mission Taco.
What Tilford and Brown would eventually learn is that, on March 18, Governor Parson had already approved the temporarily sale of pre-batched cocktails to go. The suspension was originally folded into executive order 20-04, but this specific provision didn’t go into effect until after owners like Tilford and Brown spoke up. With that ammunition to share with the public and elected officials, the tide quickly turned on the issue.
“I guess all the reps just started reaching out to one another and saying, ‘hey, let’s get this through; we need to help out restaurants however we can right now, and this seems like an easy thing to do,” Tilford says.
The notice of emergency suspension requires business owners to follow a strict set of standards for pre-batched cocktails, including that drinks must be packaged in durable containers that are leak-proof, sealable and meet the minimum size requirements described in state statute. Sealed containers must either be placed in a one-time use, tamper-proof transparent bag that is securely sealed or a container sealed with tamper-proof tape. Guests are required to purchase food alongside cocktails, and businesses must provide guests with a dated receipt for the alcohol purchase.
Luckily for Tilford, Mission was basically already meeting all of these requirements.
“As soon as I found out that [the executive order] went live, I immediately switched gears to ‘alright, cool, well we need to get back up and running, and it’s going to take us a day or so to start selling the Margaritas again.”
As of Wednesday, pre-batched Margs at Mission are back for curbside pickup, with a quart, or 20 ounces, selling for $20 and a half-gallon for $40. Margarita kits are still available for sale as well for $80, which include a full bottle of Una Vida Blanco tequila and a half-gallon of Margarita mix. If you have your own tequila at home and just want the freshly made mix, a half-gallon costs $30.
At Satchmo’s, Brown is now serving a range of pre-batched cocktails for curbside pickup. In addition to offering some of the house classics, such as a sangria and Moscow Mule, the bar is also serving a few tropical frozen drinks. Nectar of the Gods, for instance, is made with fresh strawberry and mango puree.
“People are stuck in their houses, and I figure, what do people want more than anything? They want some kind of escape,” Brown says. “We can market these not just as drinks, but as escapes. Even though you can’t go anywhere, you can trick your senses with a sip of a drink that makes you feel like you’re on a beach somewhere. And I think that anything that gives people a positive experience right now is a really good thing.”
For both Brown and Tilford, this all started as a way to generate additional revenue for their businesses and keep their lights on during the pandemic. Seeing how their shared mission now stands to benefit business owners across the state, both restaurant owners are incredibly grateful to all of the elected officials and customers who helped make this happen.
“It’s a big win for us, but it’s a big win for anyone,” Tilford says. “I’d been working in my office by myself, and with everyone else working from home, I did a happy dance in my office by myself. I was pretty overjoyed; it was amazing.”
Brown echoes Tilford feelings, adding that watching the joy and excitement of other owners on social media almost brought him to tears. It’s been a brutal few weeks for the restaurant industry, he says, and it felt good to finally celebrate a win.
“Oh my gosh, it's incredible,” Brown says. “Especially with the timing, because the restaurant community in general, whether you're a server, a bartender or a manager or a restaurant owner, you haven't had any good news in a long time. There hasn't been any reason to celebrate, and it just made me... I can't even describe the feeling. I posted [on social media] that we just got our beverage program back and people were just going crazy. It’s just been all pain and sadness in the community lately, and I almost started tearing up at some of the reactions.”
Mission Taco Joint, multiple locations, missiontacojoint.com
Satchmo’s Bar & Grill, 13375 Olive Blvd, Chesterfield, Missouri, 314.878.3886, atchmosgrill.com