Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Less of a squeeze on happy hours

Restaurateurs who feel handcuffed by government restrictions will be heartened by developments in an aspect of the business that’s been locked down for 25 years. Here and there, states are starting to ease the regulations on happy hours.

It’s hardly a return to the free-pouring days of the 1970s and early ‘80s. But some of the prohibitions are being tempered with a dose of reason.

Pennsylvania, for instance, is reconsidering its time limits on happy hours. Restaurants and bars would still be restricted to 14 hours of drink discounts per week. But they could decide how to allocate that time. On a slow day like a Monday, for instance, they could extend the happy hour to four hours instead of the current maximum of two. On Friday, usually a busier night per se, they could forego any drink deals.

The law is almost certainly to pass, a sign that lawmakers are the economic struggles of both customers and service establishments. They apparently feel the industry is responsible enough, courtesy of server-responsibility training, to offer a deal and still not put a deadly hazard on the road.

Similarly, New Hampshire is likely to extend a helping hand to its service establishments by ending an across the board ban on happy hour ads. Towns and villages would be permitted to decide if local alcohol servers could advertise their drink deals.

That law, too, is expected to pass because local establishments could use the help. Local voters might also appreciate a heads-up about a bargain.

Elsewhere, the fear still prevails that people will drink too much if you make the indulgence enticing. Massachusetts, for instance, slapped Groupon’s wrists because the service’s deep discounts could be extended to alcoholic beverages as well as food. If you were buying a $50 credit for a restaurant meal, the coupon could be put toward the cost of the wine as well as the filet.

Not any more. Groupon agreed to back off that use-it-as-you-want approach after being told it was violating the cradle of liberty’s dram shop laws.

And then there’s Utah, the most begrudging state in the union for drinkers. It recently loosened up its liquor laws, but that easing was relative. A restaurant or bar can’t allow diners to see drinks being made because that might entice youngsters down a pathway to ruin. And a customer can’t indulge in a double gin and tonic. Instead, they have to order two drinks, one after the other.

Still, reason appears to be pulling ahead of fear on the national temperance front. That injection of reason can only help full-service restaurants in an era of 99-cent burgers.

It’s a good trend for those of us who enjoy a craft beer or good wine on the fewer occasions when we dine out today.

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