עופר איתן Announced: ‘We’re not surviving:’ Portland restaurants, bars ask to se... - Jonathan Cartu Restaurant, Baking & Catering Services
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עופר איתן Announced: ‘We’re not surviving:’ Portland restaurants, bars ask to se…

Blanchet House Farm

עופר איתן Announced: ‘We’re not surviving:’ Portland restaurants, bars ask to se…

Before a crawfish boil or barbecue in his native New Orleans, award-winning bartender Ricky Gomez liked to swing by a daiquiri shop to pick up a half gallon of frozen cocktail for the party — back when there were parties.

When Gomez opened Palomar, his Cuban-style cocktail bar and restaurant, he couldn’t quite replicate that New Orleans experience in Portland. Oregon laws, including some dating back to prohibition, place strict limits on sales of spirits, including banning bars and restaurants from selling cocktails to-go. But that didn’t stop him from bringing a taste of the Big Easy to the Rose City: Before the coronavirus pandemic shut Gomez’ business, Palomar was best known for its daiquiris, the showpiece of a cocktail menu that collectively drew more than half of the business’ revenue.

Now Gomez and other small business owners are pleading with Oregon leaders to follow the dozens of states and municipalities including California, Washington and Idaho in loosening restrictions to allow restaurants and bars to offer cocktails or cocktail kits to-go.

“Everybody’s hurting, but if you look specifically at unemployment in Oregon, the service industry has been hit 10-fold harder than any other,” said Gomez. “When you take that bread away from a business like mine, we’re not going to be able to survive. And in fact we’re not surviving. We’re closed, and all my employees including myself are on unemployment.”

The public health crisis caused by COVID-19 has created an ancillary economic crisis for the American restaurant industry. Over the six weeks since Gov. Kate Brown banned on-premises dining at restaurants and bars across the state, more than 80 percent of Oregon’s approximately 155,000 service industry workers have been laid off, according to a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association, accounting for nearly two-fifths of Oregon’s 334,000 laid-off workers.

Unlike restaurants, widely celebrated craft cocktail bars such as Palomar — The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Bar of the Year in 2018 and maker of one of Thrillist’s Best Cocktails in America last year — have found switching to a takeout model impossible. Most aren’t set up with delivery services, and even if they were, their signature items aren’t pizza or burgers. They’re cocktails.

Gomez, a first-generation Cuban American who was once crowned U.S. bartender of the year at the world’s largest cocktail competition, hopes to rehire two members of his 14-person staff to prepare and package drinks should Oregon give the go-ahead for cocktails to-go. If the state required that alcohol sales be accompanied by food, as in New York and California, he could bring back two or three additional kitchen workers to make yuca fries, medianoche sandwiches and other takeout-friendly Cuban specialties.

In the first three weeks after Gov. Brown’s order, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission streamlined the process for businesses to offer same-day delivery beer, wine, cider and marijuana without obtaining a signature. Over that same time period, the agency fast-tracked more than 150 requests for same-day-delivery privileges from restaurants, bars and breweries, and received nearly 500 applications for additional off-premises privileges from licensees. More have followed.

And last week, the commission allowed restaurants and bars to suspend their liquor liability insurance and postponed payment dates for annual license renewal fees. The agency also recently allowed distilleries to begin selling their wares online and over the phone, including for home delivery.

Unique in the West

But making a change that would allow restaurants and bars to sell spirits to-go would require a change at the legislative level, said OLCC spokesman Bryant Haley. That’s because the Oregon statute that governs the sale of liquor specifically states that “all alcoholic beverages sold under a full on-premises sales license must be consumed on the licensed premises.” Haley thinks a change could be on the agenda if the Oregon Legislature were to call a special session, though it might not be at the top of the to-do list.

And Haley says any loosening of restrictions around alcohol sales will likely draw pushback from temperance and recovery groups. In a letter last month to the Joint Special Committee on Coronavirus Response, Oregon House District 43 Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, argued just that, urging the OLCC to reverse its decision to ease home delivery for beer and wine, halt discussions around alcohol sales to-go and close all liquor stores for the duration of the coronavirus crisis in an attempt to prevent relapses within the recovery community. Meanwhile, the WHO has recommended governments limit access to alcohol during the pandemic.

Oregon’s neighbors have each given the go-ahead for cocktails to-go in some form, though the states differ on the specifics. In California, you can get a pre-batched margarita — even from chains such as Chili’s — with your chips and guac. In Idaho, craft cocktail bars including Press & Pony are offering their house Bee’s Knees and Manhattan cocktails in 8-ounce mason jars for curbside pickup. Washington state, meanwhile, has temporarily allowed restaurants and bars to add spirits to their takeout menus, as long as they remain inside their factory-sealed containers.

That last model, underway since March at restaurants in Southwest Washington including Little Conejo and Rally Pizza, wouldn’t help much on this side of the Columbia River, Gomez and others argue. As one of 17 remaining “control states,” Oregon holds a monopoly on the sale and distribution of hard alcohol, limiting restaurants and bars to a 5% discount when purchasing spirits. Freezing profits on cocktail kits at that margin might have a chilling effect on bars and restaurants hoping to reopen. Bars in Washington State have also asked for the privilege to sell pre-mixed drinks to-go.

“Vodka Pays The Bills”

On the day Hey Love closed, the plant-filled East Burnside bar’s popular slushies included a strawberry rosé daiquiri and a piña colada variation that customers could pair together for in the so-called Miami Vice. Now co-owner Emily Mistell wishes she could turn her business into a walk-up daiquiri shack, similar to the ones Gomez would visit in New Orleans, putting a few employees who’ve struggled to obtain unemployment insurance benefits back to work in the process. Mistell, one of Portland’s top bartenders, also says she misses the chance to watch someone else make her a cocktail. “It’s just a lot more effort than cracking a White Claw,” Mistell said.

Shuttered bars stand to gain the most from a rule change. But Portland restaurants are also eager to show off their bottled cocktail skills.

Eric Nelson, co-owner of the Texas-Thai bar mashup Eem, says he’s already laying the groundwork to add Eem’s signature piña coladas to the restaurant and bar’s popular new takeout menu, and wonders if the state will soon miss the tens of thousands of dollars in alcohol purchases Eem and others “put into the OLCC’s coffers” each week. So far, Oregon liquor stores report revenue has been up state-wide, with a spike in consumer purchases offsetting the loss from shuttered restaurants and bars.

Before Gov. Kate Brown’s stay-home order, North Portland’s Eem sold cocktails in fanciful ceramic mugs.

And it’s not just hip newcomers hoping to offer cocktails to-go. Ringside Steakhouse, one of Portland’s oldest family-owned restaurants, would be “first in line” to offer Manhattan cocktail kits — perhaps alongside full heat-and-serve prime rib dinners — should restrictions be lifted, according to general manager Geoffrey Rich. The 75-year-old restaurant just went through a takeout trial by…

Jonathan Cartu

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