Pork katsu curry rice and house-made soft tofu with a Midnight Lullaby cocktail ordered for takeout from Fish & Bird in Berkeley. Photo: Amalya Dubrovsky.

On Thursday, the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) announced it would temporarily relax regulations to help restaurants and others in the alcohol beverage industry that have been devastated by recent local and state orders enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19. The announcement came hours after California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a state-wide stay-at-home order.

“We’re trying to be as flexible as we can under the circumstances because we understand that businesses are hurting.” — John Carr, Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC)

The relaxed regulations cover a wide range of issues for businesses that sell alcohol, including bars, breweries, wineries, distillers and liquor stores, but the eased rules most notably impacts restaurants. For now, the ABC will allow restaurants to sell alcoholic beverages, including beer, wine and pre-mixed cocktails, for delivery and takeout, including through a drive-through window.

“We’re trying to be as flexible as we can under the circumstances because we understand that businesses are hurting,” John Carr, a public information officer for California’s ABC, said of the regulatory changes.

Despite the relaxed regulations, there are still some rules in place. Restaurants that sell alcohol to-go must already have proper licenses to do so and must verify sales are to individuals 21 and older. Alcoholic beverage containers must either be pre-packaged, like a sealed can or bottle, or have a secure lid or cap with no holes. Orders for to-go cocktails and poured growlers (that is, drinks that aren’t in sealed cans, bottles or other manufacturer sealed containers) must accompany a food item. Participating restaurants must display notices warning the public that to-go alcoholic drinks are open containers and should be transported in trunks (including by third-party delivery services) and not consumed in public.

Matthew Reagan, co-owner of the Kon-Tiki, a tropical-themed restaurant and bar in downtown Oakland, welcomed the development. “If California and the Bay Area specifically is going to keep the wonderful food culture that we have,” said Reagan by phone, “this was absolutely a necessary step.”

On Friday, Reagan had all the supplies he needed to deliver and sell for take-out punchy, tropical rum cocktails in unassuming brown beer bottles for customers to enjoy at home in a glass over ice.

Reagan made 150 cocktails on Friday — half of what he sells on a Friday without a pandemic – and sold out of supplies within two hours.

“I should call the Governor and thank him,” Reagan said.

The Kon-Tiki in downtown Oakland is hopeful that offering tropical cocktails like the Mai Tai for take-out will allow them to stay in business during shelter-in-place. Photo: The Kon-Tiki

Normally, alcohol sales constitute around 60% of revenues at the Kon-Tiki, but business there has decreased by 85% since the shelter-in-place order took effect.

Reagan laid off everyone but the chef last week, a total of 12 people, but said if people keep ordering at the same pace as Friday, he could rehire a few employees.

Yoshika Hedberg, co-owner of Fish & Bird Sousaku Izakaya, a two-month-old Japanese restaurant in downtown Berkeley, also added cocktails to her take-out menu this weekend. Two cocktails, one called Midnight Lullaby and the other Strange Weather, come in decorative, labeled mason jars.

“Maybe we can put a little bit of sparkle and fun in people’s life,” Hedberg said of the restaurant’s decision to sell cocktails.

Overall business has declined by more than 75% at Fish & Bird since dine-in service ended, Hedberg said. Alcoholic drinks made up around 25% of sales.

On Saturday evening, Hedberg had sold just a couple of to-go cocktails. “Business is slow,” she said.

Fish & Bird packs its takeout cocktails in labeled glass mason jars. Alcoholic drinks sold to-go by restaurants must be accompanied by at least one food item. Photo: Amalya Dubrovsky.

Krista Granieri, co-owner of beer-centric Oakland restaurants Brotzeit Lokal and Magpie (which opened in December) feels hopeful about the ability to sell tap beer with take-out orders, but views the overall situation for restaurants and the workers who sustain them as grim.

“Ask any restaurateur what they are selling,” she said by phone. “If they tell you they are selling food and beverages, they’re in the wrong business. Because we’re selling an experience, we’re selling ambiance, we’re selling community. And that’s what’s been taken away.”

Granieri also has not found affordable to-go containers that satisfy ABC’s requirements.

“I don’t think you can buy lids without the straw holes in them,” she said. “What are we going to use? Soup containers?”

“We’re selling an experience, we’re selling ambiance, we’re selling community. And that’s what’s been taken away.” — Krista Granieri, Brotzeit Lokal, Magpie

At her restaurants, approximately 40% of sales were from alcohol. Since last week, she let go around 50 people and business declined by 90%.

“It was a struggle before and now it is definitely questionable whether we’ll be able to stay open or reopen,” she said.

Reagan, though, is motivated by the thought of the Kon-Tiki being around when restaurants can hold space for community again.

“The thing is I want to still be in business when we declare victory on coronavirus,” said Reagan. “I want to be serving Mai Tais for the parade. ‘Cause that’s going to be a big party. And that’s going to be a lot of fun.”

The Kon-Tiki (347 14th St., Oakland) is open 5-9 p.m., Monday through Saturday, for takeout. Call (510) 823-2332 for curbside pick-up through side door on Webster Street
Fish & Bird Souzaku Izakaya (2451 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) is open 5-9 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday for takeout. Order online or call (510) 705-1539 to request curbside pick-up
Magpie (375 40th St., Oakland) is open noon-8 p.m., Monday through Sunday for takeout and delivery. Call (510) 788-4698 for curbside pick-up
Brotzeit Lokal (1000 Embarcadero, Oakland) is open 5-9 p.m., Monday through Friday; noon-8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday for takeout and delivery. Call (510) 645-1905 to request curbside pick-up

Amalya Dubrovsky

Freelancer Amalya Dubrovsky grew up in Berkeley and studies at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is a lifelong fan of the East Bay food scene and loves to write about it for Nosh. Follow her...