Curbside booze sales save restaurants and retailers in 2020

Tennesseans drowned their sorrows in during a year of pandemic

Cinco de Mayo on Woodland Street in East Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Cinco de Mayo on Woodland Street in East Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Curbside alcohol sales were the saving grace in an otherwise dismal year for many restaurants and beer retailers, as Tennesseans drowned their sorrows during a socially-distanced pandemic year.

In Nashville, the Metro Beer Board was the first entity to pass rules allowing for curbside beer pickup, with the support of its board members and Mayor John Cooper.

Then Gov. Bill Lee instituted a bill that allowed take-out or delivery of alcoholic beverages in March and later extended the executive order until Feb. 27, 2021. Lee recently signed House Bill 2028 to allow the permanent sale of beer online from beer retailers, but restaurant managers and owners want the same privilege extended to other alcoholic beverages in the long run. 

Alcohol sales as a whole were severely impacted in 2020. From April to July, state revenue from mixed drinks were significantly lower than in 2019. In May, the state received $1,612,097 in revenue while the previous year’s alcohol revenue was $12,045,707. 

  Overall, liquor sales were down because of the tornado and pandemic, but curbside alcohol was the most popular thing that kept us afloat.    – Sergio Lucas, manager, Cinco de Mayo in East Nashville

These figures do not include taxes paid on takeout and delivery alcohol.  Because to-go alcohol is consumed off of business premises, liquor-by-the-drink taxes do not apply. 

Cinco de Mayo in East Nashville had recently opened when a tornado tore through Middle Tennessee, and before the restaurant had time to recover, Cooper issued pandemic guidance that strictly limited capacity. Two natural disasters in one year would have surely spelled the end for any fledgling business, but then Lee implemented the sale of take-out alcohol, and everything changed.

“I kid you not, it was a complete game changer. Overall, liquor sales were down because of the tornado and pandemic, but curbside alcohol was the most popular thing that kept us afloat,” said Sergio Lucas, manager.

“From March to June we were selling to-go pitchers like crazy,” he added. 

Top 10 commercial beers sold in Tennessee in 2020

  • Bud Light
  • Michelob Ultra Light
  • Miller Light
  • Coors Light
  • Natural Light
  • Budweiser
  • Modelo Especial
  • Corona Extra
  • Yuengling Traditional Lager
  • Busch

Source: National Beer Wholesalers Association

While the Metro Beer Board has seen a higher than average increase of businesses with beer permits close, officials speculate that the damage could have been much worse. 

“We looked for opportunities to provide lifelines for our industry, and I’m not sure we could foresee just how positive curbside/delivery would be for our permit holders,” said Benton McDonough, executive director at Metro Beer Permit Board. 

Other businesses that sell alcohol reported similar boosts. Restaurants were able to close their doors for the safety of employees while selling alcohol with takeout orders. Other businesses that initially had to lay off staff brought employees back on the payroll to manage takeout alcohol sales.

But at Tailgate Brewery in Nashville, hourly employees were let go as the business transitioned to takeout only and were unsure about their future.

“Takeout only ever accounted for maybe 2% of total business,” said Wesley Keegan, a Tailgate employee.

“Direct beer delivery brought back hourly employees the next day. Over 80% of our total team was back at work in about a week,” said Keegan. “The remaining 20% were voluntarily not back. They were welcomed back but chose not to for various personal reasons. Direct delivery and open container was very important for us – it helped support our food as a takeout business.”. 

While beer retailers are now making long-term business plans for selling beer online for takeout and delivery, liquor-permit holders hope the notion is extended to all alcoholic beverages. Restaurants are already planning for the long-run, in case takeout alcohol is here to stay.

“It’s been a rough year but alcohol has kept us afloat,” said Lucas, adding that strawberry, skinny margaritas have been their best seller. 

Currently, an online petition to make takeout alcohol a permanent fixture in Tennessee has more than 4,500 signatures.

“We really need it to stay,” Lucas added.