Renewed Efforts to Bring Back To-Go Drinks Have Some Dive Bars Asking if it’s Worth it

Dive bars, which are known for their ambiance and focus on community, are concerned what this could mean for the future of their business.

New York is revisiting bringing to-go alcoholic drinks from bars and restaurants back permanently following Gov. Kathy Hochul’s State of the State address, however, some dive bar owners are not sure that it would be a good idea.

While the service was a lifeline for small hospitality businesses, many dive bar owners are unsure if they would return to takeout alcoholic drinks, due to concerns with additional liability and work that their already struggling business might have to deal with.

“If you asked me if I’m looking forward to this, I’d say I’m really not,” said Lee Seinfeld, owner of several dive bars in the Upper West Side including Dive 106 and Broadway Dive. “It’s a matter of how they police it….I don’t really foresee it as helping too much, it could just be a major pain in the ass.”

Seinfeld echoed concerns that other dive bar owners had regarding the feasibility of implementing to-go drinks as an option for customers, as the industry still employs 30% fewer workers as of this year compared to 2019 according to a report from the state comptroller. 

“[Our workflow] is what it’ll all come down to,” Nicole Rivera, manager and owner of Lion’s Head Tavern on 109th St. and Amsterdam Ave. “You need more space to have certain things [like to-go] and maybe you need an extra employee just to take care of to-go drinks…it’s a lot of just checks and balances.” 

Rivera and Seinfeld also expressed concern over the kind of responsibility they would have regarding violations of Alcoholic Beverage Control Laws, or ABC Laws, given that they have no control over their drinks after they leave their doors. 

“As a business owner, we are responsible for everyone in there…we are serving them alcohol,” Rivera said. “At least when it’s in here and it’s not to-go, I can monitor that and feel safe about it.”

According to the New York State Liquor Authority (NYSLA), most of the violations of ABC Law that bars and restaurants faced during the height of to-go cocktail sales were from people loitering around the establishment after buying a to-go beverage. Fines for these violations could equal as much as $3,000.

Should the service become permanently legalized, however, the NYSLA says that the sale of to-go drinks would be similar to buying liquor from a grocery store. 

“What the law says is that our on-premise licensees — bars, restaurants, and taverns — have the responsibility to the area in front of and the area around the establishment,” NYSLA Public Information Officer, Bill Crowley, said. 

The measure that Hochul submitted to the state legislature is the second attempt in the last two years to make alcoholic drinks to-go a permanent option for the service restaurants and bars provide to their customers. The first failed prior to the expiration of the Executive Order signed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo that permitted the service in June 2021.

“What we’re trying to do is to bring more customers to these establishments…to bring customers physically into the location and give them another option while they’re there,” State Sen. Leroy Comrie, who also introduced a bill earlier this year which would legalize to-go drinks, said.

“[This bill] is not for bars, it’s for restaurants,” Comrie continued. “This is to enhance restaurants that are doing full service dining, not the bar that’s trying to push more drinks out the door.”

Bars and restaurants alike are still struggling, with 86% of operators in New York saying that they are less profitable now than before the pandemic according to a report from the National Restaurant Association.

However, some dive bar owners are still unsure whether to-go would be worth it.

“If you order from me and I send you over two cocktails to your house, you’re having your two cocktails that you couldn’t make at home on your computer chat group and having a good time with your buddies,” Seinfeld said. “You know, that might be fine but that creates a different atmosphere. Then, you’re just looking at me like I’m a to-go window.”

As people begin to get more comfortable with going out, both Seinfield and Rivera expressed a need to continue to build the atmosphere of family that defines neighborhood joints like Lion’s Head Tavern and Dive 106. While both are cautiously excited about the prospect of adding to their revenue, their focus will continue to be the building of regular, in-person business.

“When people come to a place like this, that’s been around for a long time, and has a soul and a heartbeat, you are coming here to feel that and to get all that,” Rivera said. “As long as we keep that alive, people always come back to that.”