It was early on a recent Tuesday night, but business was relatively brisk at dp, An American Brasserie — a small, upscale bar and restaurant just down the hill from the state Capitol building in Albany.

A delivery driver approached and picked up a takeout order, grabbing a pair of brown paper bags and signing a receipt before hitting the road.

If Josh Turo had his way, that order would have included a pair of cocktails, as well – the way it would have during the first 15 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Every to-go order had anywhere from two to maybe six cocktails, minimum on every single order,” said Turo, the restaurant’s manager and sommelier. “So that can end up adding a lot to a business.”

Restaurants and bars across New York have spent much of the last eight months pleading with lawmakers and state officials to reinstate to-go drink options, which provided a much-needed financial boost to the industry during the darkest days of the pandemic. But they’ve run into opposition from a small but powerful force: Liquor stores, the mostly mom-and-pop shops across the state that have banded together in Albany to protect their interests. The battle between liquor stores and restaurants is among the more contentious fights brewing this legislative session.

Liquor store owners joined forces about a decade ago to block the sale of wine in grocery stores, warding off a vigorous push by major grocers. And now, store owners have become the biggest obstacle to permanently legalizing to-go cocktails – though they say they’re open to negotiation.

“We're glad to sit down and work with the restaurants, the taverns and the legislators to work out a deal,” said Stefan Kalogridis, president of the New York State Liquor Store Association, a trade group.

Why liquor stores got involved

Kalogridis owns Colvin Wine Merchants, a small wine-and-liquor shop in a shopping plaza on one of Albany’s main drags.

He said liquor stores generally didn’t have an issue when then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an order allowing bars and restaurants to offer alcoholic beverages with takeout orders back in March 2020. It was the earliest days of the pandemic, after all, and indoor dining was shut down. Takeout orders were all restaurants had to survive.

But it wasn’t long until restaurants started pushing the limits, at least from Kalogridis’ perspective. They began offering full bottles of wine or liquor as part of meal packages rather than just single-serve drinks. And that was when the liquor stores decided to step in, claiming the rules were being exploited.

“They were becoming a liquor store, and that's not fair to us if they become a liquor store,” he said.

New York stopped allowing restaurants to offer to-go drinks in June 2021, when Cuomo’s emergency powers expired. Bar and restaurant organizations pushed lawmakers to make it permanent, but the Legislature ended its annual session without taking action.

"Last year, when drinks to-go was abruptly ended, it was a financial blow to the restaurant industry,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, which represents bars and restaurants.

It was a win for liquor stores, who had raised a host of issues with state lawmakers – everything from concerns about restaurants infringing on their turf, to the potential for increased drunk driving, to quality of life fears.

“I think that the liquor store lobby was able to persuade legislators using questionable claims — false assertions that extension of this policy, while helpful to restaurants, would be harmful to liquor stores,” said Scott Wexler, executive director of the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association. “And the Legislature is typically very responsive to concerns by small business owners.”

I think that the liquor store lobby was able to persuade legislators using questionable claims

Scott Wexler, executive director of the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association

A history of fighting back

The New York State Liquor Store Association is one of at least two major organizations lobbying on behalf of liquor stores in New York. The other, the Metropolitan Package Store Association, is led by Michael Correra, owner of Michael-Towne Wines & Spirits in Brooklyn Heights.

Correra declined to comment, through a spokesperson.

The organizations united to great effect in the late 2000s and early 2010s, when Cuomo and former Gov. David Paterson pushed to allow wine sales in grocery stores.

They branded the joint effort as the “Last Store on Main Street Coalition,” which was meant to play on their small-business roots. It worked: Lawmakers never got on board, wine never made it into grocery stores and grocers haven’t made a major push since.

“We're all practically a family,” Kalogridis said. “There are no chain stores in New York state; we all are independently owned. We're mostly all family businesses and, you know, we all come together. It's natural.”

They banded together financially, as well.

The Metropolitan Package Store Association’s political action committee has contributed about $1.3 million to state and local political campaigns since Paterson first proposed wine in grocery stores in 2008, according to state disclosure data.

The contributions have gone to a who’s who of legislators, governors, party committees and local officials, often in amounts of several hundred or a few thousand dollars at a time.

Among the biggest recent recipients of the Metro group’s largesse has been Gov. Kathy Hochul, whose campaign received $50,000 in contributions from the organization last year.

Hochul, however, has emerged as one of the biggest boosters of alcohol to-go, including a proposal to permanently legalize it as part of her state budget plan.

Her office has even touted her support for the measure with a meme-ready GIF of Hochul toasting what appears to be a glass of wine.

The restaurant industry’s lobbying groups have been less active with campaign contributions, with the New York State Restaurant Association giving about $268,000 over the last two decades and the NYC Hospitality Alliance giving $17,500, according to state disclosure records.

Modest benefit for some, bigger for others

It’s not clear exactly how big of a financial boon to-go cocktails would be for restaurants, nor how much of a burden it could be for liquor stores.

Wexler conceded that the benefit would be generally small or modest for most restaurants. But it’s a different story for those that have gone through the trouble of altering their entire business model during the pandemic to rely more on takeout as their major source of revenue.

“For those restaurants, alcohol-to-go is a tremendous, tremendous asset,” he said.

At least 16 states have passed measures making cocktails-to-go permanent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. The concept has support in New York, too: A recent Siena College poll showed 55% of voters are in favor. Much of that support came from within New York City, where 63% of those surveyed approved such a measure if passed.

This year, supporters of the measure are banking on Hochul’s support to see it through in New York. By including it in her budget plan, she ensured it will be something lawmakers will have to negotiate with her office ahead of the March 31st deadline, in order to have a spending plan in place.

Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz, a Brooklyn Democrat who sponsored a bill to legalize drinks to-go, said he believes the chances of passage are better this year than last.

“People realize that alcohol-to-go really helped the restaurants,” he said. “It helped them at a time when they needed it. And it actually showed that restaurants were serving alcohol with meals, not on their own.”

As campaign contributions go, Cymbrowitz received $750 from the NYC Hospitality Alliance in recent years, with the most recent contribution coming in 2019.

So far, the liquor store industry has found the current proposals on the table to be unacceptably vague, according to Kalogridis. Hochul’s proposal, for example, would leave it up to the State Liquor Authority whether to impose any sort of restrictions on the size or quantity of drinks that restaurants can sell.

Though Kalogridis says liquor stores are open to negotiation – even willing to accept a sunset rule – Cymbrowitz says he’s not convinced.

“I don't think there's anything that's going to satisfy the liquor stores,” he said. “They’re going to push back the way they did last year.”