DENVER — If there’s been an upside at all to the pandemic for small businesses, it may be alcohol sales.
“People were consuming at home more,” said Jim Archibald, owner of Morgans Liquors in Denver’s Platte Park neighborhood.
Liquor stores like Morgans saw a big boost, and some restaurants stayed afloat in part because of to-go alcohol sales.
“We were really reliant on that to-go business,” said Philip Roberson, bartender at The Bindery in Denver’s LoHi neighborhood. “Not only for food, but especially for alcohol.”
“When we were in lockdown, I would order to-go alcohol all the time,” said Anneliese Farmer, a Denver resident.
But that temporary variance allowing restaurants to serve up to-go alcohol is set to expire July 1.
“We’ll continue to do it as long as we’re allowed to,” Roberson said.
“I certainly think it’s a huge component to our success,” said Scott Engelman, owner of The Truffle Pig and Carl’s Tavern in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Which is why some lawmakers are now brewing up a plan to rewrite liquor laws long term in Colorado.
Denver7 went 360 with liquor store owners, restaurant owners and bartenders, craft brewers, customers and the lawmaker spearheading a couple different bills this session.
“It gives them a little help that they need,” said state Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village.
Bridges is the sponsor on two bills. The first bill would extend to-go alcohol sales for five more years.
“Colorado consumers like this,” Bridges said. “I’ve heard from people who say, 'I just don’t make a margarita as well as my local Mexican food place makes that margarita.'”
The second bill would allow liquor stores to open multiple stores. Since prohibition, Colorado law prohibited liquor store owners from having more than one store. Bridges says the new law would allow them up to five stores this year, eight next year and no limits by 2037, just like grocery stores and big box retailers.
“It’s giving Colorado entrepreneurs the ability to compete,” Bridges said. “Which they don’t have right now. And the ability to compete against giant big box stores, like Walmart. We’re leveling the playing field.”
But Archibald argues the law moves the goalposts — favoring big box retailers, like Maryland-based Total Wine.
“Where Walmart was going into small towns across the country and killing small stores in small towns, I feel like we’re in the midst of that right now if the legislators don’t oppose these bills,” Archibald said.
Morgans Liquors has been a mainstay in Platte Park for decades.
“I’m only the fourth owner since 1930,” Archibald said.
He says this new law does not favor small mom-and-pops, but falls flat — encouraging big box liquor stores like Total Wine, Applejack and Molly’s to expand, leaving the little guys in the dust.
“I played by the rules,” Archibald said. “The rules were, you could have one store per family, and that’s what I did. There’s enough liquor outlets across the state now. Why do we need to continue adding more?”
This flurry of new bills comes after a 2018 law allowed grocery stores and the big box stores of the world to start selling full strength beer.
Archibald says the Safeway that shares a parking lot with him has been undercutting his prices ever since.
“In the last five years, everything’s been turned upside down on us,” he said. “I was hoping to pass on to my kids, and at this point, I don’t know where we’re going to be tomorrow.”
Small batch brewers like Ryan Skeels say small mom-and-pop liquor stores are crucial to their success.
“We’re in maybe 12 liquor stores right now,” said Skeels, owner of Baere Brewing Company in Denver’s Baker neighborhood.
Skeels says large grocers aren’t stocking up on his craft brews, which makes small mom-and-pops one of his only outlets.
“They’re small businesses, just like we are, and they’re interested in the beer,” Skeels said. “Community is just as important as the beer.”
Both grocery stores and big box stores are dominated primarily by national brands. A Colorado State University study found that beer sales increased in grocery stores by 20% after that new law in 2018.
But the same study found they only carry the huge brands like New Belgium, Oskar Blues, Great Divide and mega-brewers like Anheuser-Busch and Coors.
Smaller breweries still have trouble accessing that new marketplace because those grocers find it easier to contract with major distributors and big brands with massive marketing budgets to drive sales.
Then, there’s the extension of to-go alcohol sales.
“We get a lot of request for different cocktails — Bloody Mary’s, mimosas,” Roberson said.
At The Bindery, to-go alcohol sales have been key to survival.
“It gives people flexibility that don’t have time to come in and drink and sit down. They can get it on the go,” Roberson said.
For customers, it is super convenient.
“Way more convenient to just go — have it premade, measurements are already done for you,” Farmer said. “All you have to do is put it over ice — it’s great. It’s a really easy way to still support local businesses that you love and restaurants that you love, even though you might not want to necessarily go out to eat.”
“Instead of saying, ‘Hey, go walk around.’ Now, we can say, ‘Would you like a cocktail to walk around with?’ In the summertime, that worked great,” said Engelman, who is also chair of the board for the Colorado Restaurant Association.
He says to-go sales combined with a locally established temporary entertainment district provided a huge boost.
“We were grasping at any opportunity that we could seize to help us stay afloat. They created an entertainment district downtown that comprised an 8x4 block area that abutted the river,” Engelman said. “You could come in, get a drink, take it out, walk around — perhaps even go down to the river.”
Archibald and other smaller businesses seem largely supportive of restaurants.
“Nobody’s been hurt worse during COVID than the restaurant industry in Colorado,” he said.
That may be true, but liquor stores across Colorado are hoping that pain isn’t now shifted to them.
Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.