When the COVID-19 pandemic struck and The Pig and The Lady’s dining room closed, Alex Le, general manager of the Honolulu Vietnamese restaurant renowned for its food and cocktails, was stuck with an inventory of almost $100,000 worth of alcohol.

Suddenly, the option to sell that alcohol for carryout and home delivery became possible in April 2020, extending the restaurant a lifeline — and a new revenue stream.

Nearly a year later, wine and whiskey by the bottle, six-packs of beer and pre-packaged cocktail kits are in high demand as take-away food and drink orders now account for nearly 75% of the restaurant’s total sales — up from about 10% before the pandemic, according to Le.

Establishments with a liquor license in Hawaii started selling alcohol to-go for the first time in April 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced these businesses to shut down their dining rooms and bars. nickster 2000/flickr.com

Bars and restaurants that have survived the pandemic so far are seeing glimmers of hope as the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations quickens despite a recent uptick in the number of daily cases.

Honolulu recently allowed bars to reopen and operate under the same conditions as restaurants, limiting groups to 10 people but lifting a previous curfew so booze can be sold until midnight.

“There’s a high demand because even though restaurants are open now, a lot of people still don’t really want to come in,” Le said.

“Takeout is going to be with us a long time and to-go cocktails are still a big thing for us,” he said. “It sort of completes the take-away dining experience.”

To help struggling bars and restaurants stay in business amid COVID-19 lockdowns, Gov. David Ige signed an executive order last April to allow establishments with a liquor license to sell alcohol to-go and for home delivery for the first time in state history.

Before the pandemic hit, only Florida and Mississippi allowed to-go cocktails in some capacity, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Now carryout whiskey sours, mezcal mules and Mai Tais are allowed in more than 30 states, including Hawaii.

The change is widely regarded as the most drastic shake-up to state alcohol laws since the prohibition era.

Now lawmakers in about half of the states that legalized to-go alcohol sales temporarily in response to the virus have introduced legislation to make the change permanent.

While there is no such proposed legislation in Hawaii, there’s also no set expiration date for to-go alcohol sales and the governor has not indicated when the emergency order will be lifted. Meanwhile, many bars and restaurants are hoping the newly legalized sale of take-away alcohol is here to stay.

In Honolulu, restaurants can now open for indoor dining at full capacity. A restriction that had allowed restaurants to operate their indoor dining rooms at no more than 50% of normal capacity was lifted in February.

Still, Denise Luke, owner of 12th Avenue Grill in Kaimuki, said the convenience of ordering a takeout bottle of wine or a cocktail kit with a takeout dinner order continues to be a hit for many customers.

“I can’t say it was a huge saving grace for us,” Luke said of the legalization of to-go alcohol sales. “But it was really nice to be able to give our regulars something that they enjoyed in a normal time.

“It was nice to just be able to offer something that was a little more complete — ‘Here’s your great food and great wine,’ instead of ‘Here’s your food in a bag with containers.’”

“I think people want it here to stay,” she added.

Chris Burman, general manager of Square Barrels and Heiho House, said to-go alcohol sales have dropped off slightly now that people are starting to feel more comfortable sitting down inside bars and restaurants again. But to-go cocktails still remain popular with customers.

“We’d love to see everybody back in our establishment enjoying themselves but, you know, for the time being, this is a great opportunity to help people sit down and relax and enjoy something that they love even if they aren’t here with us in person,” he said.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author