Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

How One Chicago Bartender Led the Fight for Cocktails To-Go

This is how one bartender, desperate to save her bar and the industry in general, successfully fought to change state legislation.

Cocktail photo composite
Image:

Liquor.com / Laura Sant

As bars and restaurants closed their doors in spring 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, many cities and states quickly passed legislation to allow to-go cocktail sales from on-premise establishments. Yet Illinois, one of the country's most populous states and home to one of the country's most vibrant drinking and dining scenes, stood firm. When one bartender and business owner didn't find any resources to help push for change, she decided to become that instigator herself, successfully leading a grassroots campaign to pass a bill through the state’s legislature.

The Legislative Fight

Julia Momose, the creative director of Kumiko as well as a partner in the bar, quickly sprang to create a grassroots movement encouraging Illinois to adopt legislation in support of to-go cocktails. Called Cocktails for Hope, the organization's Change.org petition had garnered more than 13,000 signatures as of June 15. 

"I said to myself, all right, nobody is doing anything, so I have to do something," says Momose. The petition began accumulating signatures as Momose reached out to others in Chicago's bar and restaurant industries, spreading word of the movement via email and social media. The effort led to an introduction with Sean O'Leary, a Chicago lawyer experienced with liquor legislation. "We started pushing hard and lobbying, just the two of us sending out letters to everyone we could think of," she says.

The duo garnered the attention of the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, though, at the time, neither its approval nor that of governor J.B. Pritzker. Bars were allowed to sell growlers of beer but not the premixed cocktails Momose sought to sell, among other legislative inconsistencies. "It had been frustrating, but I understand," says Momose. "He has a lot more that he's dealing with." But she didn't succumb to those frustrations and end her fight. Instead, with the help of O'Leary and the backing of her partners at Kumiko, she redoubled her efforts and rounded up more support.

"I'd say there were about 12 of us who are basically full-time lobbying, organizing and reaching out to our friends and looking up restaurants in districts with representatives who we need to reach and haven't been able to touch yet," says Momose. The efforts paid off. Cocktails for Hope worked with Illinois State Senator Sara Feigenholtz to write a bill that the State Senate passed unanimously, followed by the State House issuing an overwhelming 102-6 affirmative vote. 

Governor Pritzker signed bill HB262 into law on June 2, allowing to-go and delivered cocktails in Illinois. Individual localities may choose to opt out, however. Momose then testified to Chicago’s council committee, which passed the ordinance. The city is expected to vote in the affirmative on June 17 as a final step toward approving the legislation. 

One bartender determined to take a stand effected a new piece of legislation that can help the entire community of bars in Chicago and across the state.

Why To-Go Cocktails Matter

Selling a full bottle of alcohol to-go, which on-premise establishments in Illinois have been allowed to do, may provide some level of revenue. However, a bar or restaurant is waging an uphill battle in that particular contest against what there's already an abundance of: liquor stores, which can sell alcohol at lower prices with a larger selection. 

"Chicago doesn't need 500 more liquor stores,” says Momose. “Not to mention that shops are able to purchase cases of alcohol by the truckload at half the cost of what we even pay. Our version of wholesale is nothing like their version of wholesale.”

Julia Momose
Julia Momose.  Sammy Faze Photography

Selling cocktails, on the other hand, transforms a single bottle of spirits into 15 or more drinks. That's an exponential increase in revenue. "For every single bottle I look at, I think, If I could sell this as cocktails, 25.36 ounces per bottle, 1.5 ounces per drink, 16.906667 drinks, and even at $10, that's $160!” she says. That comes out to more than $100 profit per bottle, she adds, versus just $5 in profits if sold as a full bottle.

Further, cocktails showcase the skill, creativity and talent of the people who make them and enable bars to connect with their customers and community members. "It really is a chance to continue to provide an experience for people," says Momose.

For her, that might mean selling the aromatic incense that provides her restaurant's ambiance, folding origami cranes to include with every order or offering her signature spirit-free libations. "The spirit-frees are doing extraordinarily well, and it's because most of my guests are spiking them at home,” says Momose with a laugh. "Which is great, though. I would actually want to tweak them a little bit for certain spirits, but that's a whole other me-being-geeky thing."

As for those origami cranes Momose has been folding, they symbolize her own bit-by-bit quest for hope and change. "There's this folktale in Japan, where you fold 1,000 cranes and your wish is granted," she says. "Maybe I'll end up folding 1,000 cranes before all this is over, and maybe by then something good will happen." 

Even with the approval of to-go cocktails, there are going to be more setbacks and challenges in the months and years ahead as the world continues wrestling with changes caused by the pandemic. There likely will be additional legislative fights and long nights spent crunching numbers. But for Momose, that's all the more reason to dig in and fight harder rather than giving up. 

"The way I see it right now is that we're at this precipice right where we could give up and all fall in, because that's easy," says Momose. "Or we could get together and work together and build a bridge. Building bridges takes a lot of time. But that's how I see this legislative process. It's bit-by-bit, piece-by-piece. That's what we need right now." 


CocktailsforHope.org
isn’t ceasing its efforts to support the community, either, with the website now serving as a resource for bars starting their to-go programs.

At the end of the day, selling cocktails to-go might not be a financial bonanza or business savior for everyone, but there's more than revenue at stake. It's why Momose named the organization the way she did. "Obviously, cocktails aren't going to save anything, but they provide hope," she says. "And hope is one of the most powerful things that you can give to a person. Because hope is then a choice. If they have hope, they can choose to take that and run with it and survive."