Why a lot of places require food service at bars, and how sometimes, that can have mighty strange consequences.
We all have a pretty good sense that food can cut down on problem drinking. If your buddy’s had too much, you get him some fries to “soak it up.” If you’re a bartender and you’re worried about a patron, you might put the pretzels in front of her or suggest she order something. In my experience, the positives of combining food with your drink extend to whole bars: places that serve food seem to have a calmer feel and fewer problems than those that don’t.
States have picked up on this. All of them, of course, require that you serve food if you want to sell booze under a “restaurant” license (or whatever the state’s equivalent is). But many have also passed laws mandating that honest-to-goodness bars serve food, too. The laws usually apply to the general “bar” or “tavern” license—places serving the whole booze pyramid (beer, wine, and liquor), but that aren’t a nightclub or a restaurant.
Each state handles it a little differently. In Virginia, at least 45% of revenue must come from food.[i] In New York, bars must have “sandwiches, soups, or similar items.” In Oregon and Washington, bars must sell at least five different “meals.” And in Colorado, you’ve gotta have sandwiches, but not necessarily meals. “A tavern licensee,” the law states, “shall have sandwiches and light snacks available for consumption on the premises during business hours, but need not have meals available for consumption.” This requirement, unsurprisingly, caused a bit of confusion in the hospitality community. No meals, just sandwiches? So a sandwich isn’t a meal now? And what exactly counts as a “sandwich”? Is open-faced cool? How about a hamburger? A hotdog?
The Colorado Department of Revenue (which didn’t write the law, of course, but has to enforce it) issued a definition of “sandwich” to help clear things up:
“Sandwiches” as used in articles 47 and 48 of Title 12, C.R.S. are defined as single serving items such as hamburgers, hotdogs, frozen pizzas, burritos, chicken wings, etc.”
And so it came to pass, that chicken wings are sandwiches in Colorado.
This is not the only strange consequence of these types of laws. Internet legends abound of bars getting creative to skirt food-serving requirements. Apparently some places in Oregon and Washington dealt with that “five different meals” thing by keeping 5 different Lean Cuisines in the freezer. Iconic NYC watering hole McSorley’s, when the city passed its first must-have-food law, may have just put a tub of mustard on the bar with a knife in it. No idea if that’s actually true, but I do know that they are now well known for the spicy mustard they serve with everything. One I know isn’t true is the persistent internet rumor that bars in Nebraska must have soup on the stove while they serve beer. Like most myths, it probably has its origins in some old local law, but it’s certainly not on the books now.
The funny thing about it is, in the pre-Prohibition era, bars serving food was actually considered a bad thing. Apparently beginning around the 1870s, saloons started putting out buffets that patrons could enjoy for free—provided they bought a drink. The hope was that they would have more than one, and maybe start showing up evenings and weekends, too. Temperance reformers hated it, and it worked well enough to remain in practice for a few decades.
Abuse by free lunch freeloaders and a new emphasis on food sanitation slowly killed off the free lunch. World War One ended it once and for all, with Prohibition following hot on its heels. As drinking culture reestablished itself in the middle of the century, it did so in concert with James Beard, Julia Child, and the beginnings of the modern restaurant movement. By the 1970s the free lunch was a distant memory, and drinking establishments that served food were seen as safer and more wholesome than those that did not. As far as I can tell, that’s when several of these laws were enacted.
For the reasons mentioned in the first paragraph, must-serve-food laws are probably not a terrible idea, though some of them clearly need some refinement, and they do have their downsides. They can, for example, make it harder to start a business: if you’re trying to open a little neighborhood joint, you can tend your own bar to save money when you’re starting out. But if there’s food involved, you need staff, not to mention a lot more capital. On the other end of the money spectrum, laws like Virginia’s may hurt the high-end market. You have to sell a lot of food to hit that 45% threshold if you carry rare, very expensive spirits.
I haven’t found any studies
that try to measure the benefits of forcing bars to have food. When places pass
these laws, does alcohol-related crime drop? Are there fewer police calls to
places with these licenses? It seems, on a gut reaction, like the potential
benefit to public health and safety is worth the added business headaches, but
is it? And if so, how far do you have to go to achieve that health and safety
benefit? Do you just need a basic law that requires food? Do you need a strict
one like Virginia’s, that basically forces bars to become restaurants? Do you
need a whole new definition for sandwiches? I have so many questions.
[i] There actually are no “bars” in Virginia. The only full on-premises liquor license is a restaurant license, which carries that food requirement. From Prohibition until the 1960s, you could only get booze to go. The food/drink ratio law was the way proponents got on-premises service legalized, and it’s never changed. See https://www.virginiamercury.com/2018/10/02/where-did-virginias-food-to-liquor-ratio-come-from-and-does-it-still-serve-a-purpose/