Friday marks a week since California’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) relaxed its regulations to allow takeout and delivery of beer, wine, and cocktails — a decision made to lessen the impact the statewide shelter-in-place order has on an industry crippled by the mandate that closed all dining rooms and bars. Restaurants and bars with a full menu jumped at the chance to bulk up their margins with a product that — many say — is being consumed at a higher rate than usual during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.
Michael Rodriguez, the owner and operator of SoMa Mexican spot Cadillac Bar & Grill, tells KRON 4 that being able to deliver booze has “kind of given us a little more exposure” and led to an increase in customers. Speaking with Berkeleyside, Matthew Reagan, the co-owner of Oakland Caribbean bar the Kon-Tiki, says that on Friday (the first night cocktails to go were legal) he mixed and made 150 drinks — about half of what he makes on a usual Friday night. “I should call the governor and thank him,” Reagan said.
But though the looser rules let some spots make a little more money, it’ll take more than door-to-door White Russians to reverse the hole many bars and restaurants have already found themselves in. “We had to make this huge pivot, basically overnight, and put in a huge amount of effort and hustle, just to make a couple mortgage payments,” Chris Cohen, the owner of Bernal Heights occult-themed bar Old Devil Moon, tells SF Gate of the pivot to delivery. “We’re not making a bunch of money, we’re just trying to survive,” he said.
Billy Agan, the co-owner of Oakland dive Eli’a Mile High Club, tells Eater SF that he’s feeling the same way. The bar had already laid off its staff when the news of the rule change broke, so it’s him behind the bar making drinks while a crew of two drives the food and drink orders to East Bay customers while clad in masks and gloves. Both employees, Agan says, are “people I trust to stay isolated when they’re not at work; if they’re going out, they’re not working here.”
Agan says that he’s always avoided delivery apps because “they exploit their drivers and take too much money,” so Eli’s “turns on” a new order-taking website during business hours (currently, Friday–Monday), and he gets an email when a customer makes contact. “We get an email and we all get going,” Agan says. “We’re just figuring it out as we go along.”
That phrase “figuring it out as we go along” might be the mantra of every restaurant that’s remained open since the shelter-in-place order was announced on March 16. For example, the ABC’s rules mandated that cocktails come in a sealable container with a lid, something that Agan was heading out to look for when Eater spoke with him last week. While he was able to find the right kind of cup to transport a Long Island Iced Tea or two, others weren’t so lucky: Krista Granieri, the co-owner of Oakland restaurants Brotzeit Lokal and Magpie, tells Berkeleyside that she hasn’t found containers that work for booze delivery. “I don’t think you can buy lids without the straw holes in them,” she tells Berkeleyside. “What are we going to use? Soup containers?”
A photo taken by SF Gate reporter Alyssa Pereira of the margaritas delivered by San Francisco Mexican spot Nopalito suggests that, yes, that’s exactly what places are using — the same plastic to-go containers one might also get for curry or any sort of heavily sauce-laden dish. “It’s funny how fast we stopped saying ‘oh no! single use cups!,’ isn’t it?” Agan says with a wry chuckle. He’s not wrong.
Agan says that it’s too early to know “if the numbers work” with delivery well enough to sustain a skeleton-crew Eli’s. Besides, this is early days in a shutdown that might extend for six to eight more weeks, and while right now, “people are really willing to really go out there and support restaurants,” it’s unknown if that sentiment will continue as the shelter-in-place continues.
Agan says that Eli’s is going to run with the delivery scheme for a month, so he can determine if it’s lucrative enough to continue. Until then, though, he says, “I’m excited to do it, because I do think that people are definitely hungry for a taste of normalcy, and that’s something we can give them.” “It sounds weird,” Agan says, “but it’s kind of a special little situation, where it’s just us and our customers against the world. And all they can talk about is what it’s going to be like when this is all over, that first night out, that first drink in a bar. It’s going to be crazy.”