By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Jan 13, 2021 at 2:01 PM

A new bill is circulating in Madison, which could be a game-changer for struggling restaurants, allowing them to legally offer items like a single-serve old fashioned with their popular Friday night carry-out fish fry.

Under current law, restaurants are allowed to beer and wine by the bottle with carry-out orders, but not cocktails, beer or wine by the glass. 

The current draft of the bill, casually referred to as “Cocktails to Go” would amend sections of Wisconsin Statutes Chapter 125 to allow bars and restaurants (anyone with a “Class B” liquor license) to "sell intoxicating liquor by the glass for consumption off the licensed premises if the licensee seals the container of intoxicating liquor with a tamper-evident seal before the intoxicating liquor is removed from the premises. The bill thus allows the retailer to sell, for example, mixed-drinks and glasses of wine to-go in sealed containers. The bill provides the same authority to wineries, allowing them to provide wines by the glass for customers."

The bill, penned by Sen. Mary Felzkowski of Irma, Wisconsin and Rep. David Steffen of Green Bay, Wisconsin is gathering co-sponsors through Jan. 19 with the hope of making it to the Senate by mid-February.  

That means that now is the perfect time to call your representatives and encourage them to support the bill. Thus far, Rep. Sinicki of Milwaukee has signed on as a co-sponsor. But more support is needed. 

Finally Wisconsin catches up

The “Cocktails to Go” law is something local restaurants and bars have been fighting for since the start of the pandemic, says AJ Dixon, chef and owner of Lazy Susan in Bay View. “Representatives including Chris Larsen have been advocating for a bill that legalizes the carry-out of cocktails for months.”

Dixon says she – and many other businesses – would benefit from the ability to offer single-serve cocktails, along with glasses of wine, not only because alcohol carries a greater profit margin than food (which is no small matter), but because it allows restaurants the flexibility to offer customers exactly what they want.

“We’ve seen a lot of people who just want a glass of something,” she says, “And not an entire bottle or a cocktail kit that makes multiple drinks.”

But Wisconsin has been on the tail end of such legislation. As of August, at least 33 U.S. States, plus the District of Columbia, had already enacted similar measures.

Dixon, who is among a growing number of restaurant owners who’ve taken it upon themselves to advocate for the industry,  says the legislation would likely have an impact that goes well beyond restaurants and bars.

“I think that many of us would have been better off if we’d had this from the beginning,” she says. “Instead, many of us have been sitting on our stocks of liquor and making due as we’re able.”

“Getting this bill passed will have an effect that’s extremely far reaching. It helps all of us that are doing curbside pick-up. It offers new options to places that have opened for dine in. It would help out bars, which have seen reduced traffic. It would also help our distributors, who’ve seen a dip in sales to restaurants, and their reps, many of whom work on commission.”

In the end, she says, it’s just one of a variety of things that would be helpful to businesses like hers.

“We need more lifelines. Right now, we are like a boat with many holes in it, and all we can do is keep bailing. Every little bit helps.”

Small biz owners speaking up

But “Cocktails to Go” isn’t the only legislation that concerns the well-being of locally owned small businesses, including bars and restaurants.

Just last week, Dixon traveled to Madison to testify against AB1, a bill proposed as COVID relief, which recently passed in the House and  has moved on to the Senate.

She spoke out against four elements in the bill including the civil liability exemption for businesses related to COVID-19 claims; proposed limitations on health departments to enforce safety provisions; policies which would make it more difficult for schools to offer virtual learning for students; and a clause which prevents businesses from requiring mandatory vaccines for employees.

She did so as both a concerned citizen and in representation of both the Milwaukee Independent Restaurant Coalition (MIRC) and the Wisconsin chapter of Main Street Alliance, an advocacy organization which which focuses its work on giving voice to small businesses and fighting for initiatives that benefit them.

“I spoke out against these things because, as AB1 stands, it is NOT a COVID relief bill,” says Dixon. “A relief bill needs to help us to mitigate and combat this so we can return to normal. I believe that can be done; but this is not the way.”  

She says she’s doing what any number of other small businesses are doing: speaking up on behalf of a struggling industry.

“We can’t sit quietly. I’m doing this to stand up for my business and the other small businesses in Milwaukee and throughout the State. We need a voice. And if more of us stand up, if we band together and speak out, it will make a difference.”

Dixon encourages others to follow suit.

“If you are a small business owner, now is the time to act. It’s time to reach out to your representatives,” she says. “And it’s time to note who answers your calls and who is willing to listen and meet with you. Join MIRC and join the Main Street Alliance. Their chapter is new to Wisconsin, but I foresee them being able to do a significant amount of work on behalf of restaurants and small businesses moving forward.”

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.