‘It helped us stay alive,’ Tennessee restaurant owners happy to see to-go alcohol sales continue

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE)– Restaurants could soon return to selling alcohol in to-go containers within the next ten days.

That’s after state lawmakers passed a bill allowing restaurants and bars to continue serving to-go for two more years.

The bill is awaiting Gov. Bill Lee’s signature.

Lee originally allowed the sales of to-go alcohol when the pandemic first hit and indoor dining wasn’t allowed, and later extended the date in which it would end.

Manny Ruiz, co-owner of Señor Taco, said the executive order was a life-saver.

“It helped us stay alive. It was the only thing that did keep up alive. You can only do so much with food, but as well all know in the restaurant business, alcohol, that’s part of, that’s more than half your business,” Ruiz said.

He said they offered anything and everything they could to keep sales up during the hard time.

They even started canning their homemade margaritas, thanks to a local brewery.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do it without them. As matter of fact, Last Days of Autumn Brewery, they helped us out. Big thanks to them for letting us use their canning line. They helped us out tremendously,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz said the to-go margarita craze continued even when they were allowed to reopen indoor dining.

“We have regular customers once a day that comes just to buy alcohol to-go, I mean, it makes us feel good,” Ruiz said.

He said selling alcohol to-go can be done safely and responsibly, and the customers liked the option.

Ruiz said he often hears from customers that getting the drinks to take home makes them feel as if they are in New Orleans, where to-go alcohol is already legal.

The good part, he said, is they can do it safely.

“No repercussions as far as I’ve heard. We haven’t had any problems with to-go alcohol,” Ruiz said.

However, easy access to alcohol while driving brings up concerns of drinking and driving.

Scott Erland, spokesperson for the Knoxville Police Department, said it’s nothing his officers aren’t used to.

Restaurants aren’t the only place people can buy alcohol.

“You have convenience stores, you have wine stores, you have liquor stores where people can grab alcohol and then, reasonably, the same theory could exist where somebody would get in their car and start drinking. That’s the hope obviously that that’s not happening with to-go alcohol sales,” Erland said.

He said if people drive drunk, officers will see the signs and pull drivers over.

If an open container is visible, he said, it gives officers even more of a reason to check their suspicions of drunk driving.

Erland said the bottom line is don’t drink and drive.

“(If) you’re going to get your to-go meal, your to-go alcohol, just be a responsible adult and wait until you get home to start drinking that,” Erland said.

Ruiz said he follows the rules, when it comes to serving alcohol to-go.

According to the bill, and the previous executive order, alcohol could only be ordered to-go if the food was also ordered.

Ruiz said they make sure customers at least get a taco for their order.

He’s just glad to continue adding that little extra revenue for their business with the to-go alcohol.

“To get the luxury of drinking the margaritas at home, taking it to a cook-out, something that we hope to be able to continue,” Ruiz said.

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