Eighty-six years from its inception, Joe T. Garcia’s, a staple Fort Worth establishment in the North Side neighborhood, never endured a closure as long as it had to in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order on March 19 to close all restaurants, Joe T.’s reopened in May with low capacity.
“It was scary because there was this feeling of uncertainty,” said Elliott Lancarte, head of marketing at Joe T. Garcia’s.
The restaurant had to navigate the uncertainties and quickly pivoted to find safer channels to serve its customers. Last summer, makeshift drive-thru lanes were devised to accommodate long stretches of cars that lined up outside the restaurant’’s 1,000-seat location. A staggering number of customers drove in to buy the celebrated Joe T. Garcia’s margaritas and take them home – the first time ever it could be legally done, Lancarte said.
The ability to serve its famous margaritas to-go gave the restaurant a “critical lifeline,” said Lancarte, who’s also a member of the family ownership group.
Now, the temporary measure that permitted restaurants to sell booze to-go is all set to codify into permanent law and become a lasting boon to local restaurants after a year full of struggles.
“There’s so much negative from the pandemic. Restaurants were just decimated,” Emily Williams Knight, CEO of Texas Restaurant Association, told the Fort Worth Report. “So it’s nice to have something that works, that was innovated through the pandemic that we can make law.”
Revenue on tap
Gov. Abbott had signed a temporary waiver in June allowing restaurants in Texas to sell alcoholic beverages to-go as an attempt to offset losses in revenue the hospitality industry had faced because of all the pandemic-related restrictions.
State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, filed House Bill 1024, a measure to permanently allow beer, wine and mixed drinks to be sold for off-premises consumption.
“I look forward to working with the Legislature to pass this bill that will be a valuable revenue source to help our Texas restaurants come back from the devastating impacts of the pandemic,” Geren had said in a statement after filling the bill.
The Texas Senate approved the legislature last week. The bill currently sits on the desk of the governor, who has shown support for alcohol-to-go law and is expected to sign it by the end of the month.
“People keep asking about (alcohol-to-go),” Lancarte said. “I think it’ll stick. People are going to want that forever.”
The alcohol-to-go law provides restaurants a revenue stream that was previously untapped. The law opens new opportunities for restaurants in North Texas, whose restaurant industry was steadily growing before the pandemic, Knight said.
“They’re very excited. Anytime the restaurants can increase what they sell, that’s a positive,” Knight said. “We’ve got a long recovery ahead. We’ve got probably another two years plus until we fully recover. (Alcohol-to-go) is another lifeline for restaurants long term.”
The Workforce Solutions for Tarrant County received 26,451 unemployment claims in March of this year in the county. The food services industry made up 9.38% of the claims, one of the most affected occupations.
Tarrant County’s hospitality sector shed almost 37,000 jobs in the second quarter of 2020.
Texas’ $70-billion restaurant industry lost about 9,000 establishments and $17 billion in revenue due to the pandemic, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area accounts for about 35% of the portion, according to Texas Restaurant Association estimates.
But the recovery is well underway, Knight said, as restaurants in North Texas experienced a 30% increase in sales in March, year over year.
“Texans love their restaurants. Folks in Fort Worth love to dine out, and we’ve seen those people return,” Knight said. “I think you’re going to see lots of new restaurants emerge and those iconic restaurants are just going to thrive again.”
The alcohol-to-go law is a step in the right direction to rebuild the industry and make it competitive again, Knight said.
Pour one (not) for all
The alcohol-to-go bill is one of the biggest wins for the restaurant industry since 1971, when the Texas Legislature first allowed restaurants and bars to sell liquor by the drink after the end of Prohibition.
However, there are limits to the to-go law. Alcoholic beverage to-go orders placed must accompany food orders. The beverages also need to be put in sealed containers that are labeled with the business name and words “alcoholic beverage,” if it’s not inside its original package.
Such requirements made Blackland Distillery owner Markus Kypreos step back from its plans of serving to-go alcoholic beverages.
The Fort Worth distillery and lounge started serving to-go cocktails at its physical location last year as the temporary law permitted. Not anymore, though.
“The packaging is way more trouble than it’s worth, for me,” Kypreos said, adding establishments like his – those that don’t primarily serve food – are overlooked by the legislation.
However, Kypreos said he is fully supportive of the new law as it helps one of the hardest-hit sectors of the local economy, and it will eventually boost his business as well.
“Anywhere where they sell alcohol is an opportunity for us to get on the shelves and market the brand,” Kypreos said. “Any bars or restaurants that serve cocktails to-go is one more opportunity for us to find our way to a household that may have never drank us before.”