If there's one thing we can learn from the career of David Bowie, it's that change is good. From the space-oddity, bisexual escapades of Ziggy Stardust to the cocaine-and-Kraftwerk era of the Thin White Duke, Bowie has made the act of transformation as glam as a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am-sequined jumpsuit, a bright orange wig, and the kind of red-glossy lips that would have Dr. Frankenfurter curling his toes in delicious envy. But change ain't easy. It's as hard as a feather boa is soft.
Just ask the men and women in the restaurant industry. Come January 1, 2006, life as they know it will be changed once and for all -- the era of the free-pour big bottle will have arrived and the reign of terror of the minibottle will be over.
And with it will come trials and tribulations, the kind that will have bar owners crying into their customers' beers. What can you do to make sure your bartenders don't overpour? How do you keep track of inventory when you no longer have convenient little bottles? Where do you put all the big bottles when you built your bar for minis? Forget all that. Let's get to the most important issue of all: will the price of drinks go down?
Some say yes. Some say no. Some say only time will tell. "I don't know yet. It depends a lot on how the pricing happens," says Chris Condon, owner and operator of Big John's Tavern. "If we are making a significant savings on the bigger bottles, then the prices will drop. If they are about the same, they will probably stay where they are."
For Mike Tronoski, owner of Moe's Crosstown Tavern, there's no reason to start talking about lowering prices just yet. "That's just kind of shooting the bar owner in the foot a little bit, I think personally," he says.
As it stands now, a bar owner can hardly begin to think about dropping the cost of drinks when many of the details about the switch to big bottles remain a mystery. "We really haven't gotten any information on how everything is going to be taxed and what the cost of the big bottles is going to be yet as far as I know. I haven't been sent anything," Tronoski says, adding later, "I don't know exactly what it's going to be like cost-wise for me as a bar owner. That's one thing that is really going to decide a lot."
Condon is likewise in the dark. "I haven't seen anything in writing yet about the exact laws and taxes and [how] everything is going to be. It's asking you what you think about something that is going to happen, but you don't know exactly what is going to happen," he says. "I don't know how much they are going to tax us per bottle. I don't know if that is going to be on the liquor store side or our side. What are the advantages of having minibottles under this new system as opposed to the other system?"
Although Condon doesn't yet know if he'll lower the cost on simple, single-liquor drinks, there is no doubt the price of multiple-liquor drinks will be heading south. Why? Bartenders currently have to use an entire minibottle for each liquor used in a two-liquor shooter, let's say something like the Red-Headed Slut or the Kamikaze, or a multi-liquor drink like Long Island Ice Tea. Not only does that mean that the drink itself is generally split between two or more glasses, but customers have to pay for each minibottle even though a recipe may call for only a single ounce. But with free pour, bartenders can add just a splash of a liquor instead of a having to dump a whopping 1.7 ounces in a glass. "I can't make a three-liquor shot for one person because it's not really a shot at that point," Condon says. "When free pour comes, I can make that one for that one person, so that will inherently drop it."
According to Tom Sponseller, president and CEO of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina, it won't be just the multiple-liquor drinks that will drop in price -- so will single-shot drinks. Why? Common sense and competition. "The first few weeks things will be kind of level, but as competition comes in, there are several things that are going to happen all at one time," Sponseller says. "You get portion savings. If a bartender or restaurant or bar serves the normal portion that most restaurants across the country serve, typically a single liquor drink would be [1.5] ounces -- we are used to 1.7 ounces in this state -- obviously, there is a cost savings to the restaurant or bar with that smaller portion."
He adds, "There is a cost savings there that the restaurant benefits from, that competition will drive on to the consumer. So, yes, in the long run we anticipate prices will come down on quite a few products, especially the multi-liquor drinks, the cocktails that have more than one alcohol."
And while competition can come from anywhere, you can be assured that one class of restaurant will be well-prepared for the switch from minibottles to free pour -- the national chains. Unlike your mom and pop shops here, your corporate giants have restaurants across the country that are quite familiar with the concept of free pour drinks. "The chains will pretty much start switching immediately on January 1," says Sponseller. "The only thing that is going to slow them down is that they will have to get rid of the inventory of the little bottles at one or two of their locations. When that's done, they [will] get big bottles only."
As for the smaller bars and restaurants, Sponseller thinks the transition so far has been bumpy. "I'll be honest with you, I think they're finding it a little slow going right now. From an independent restaurateur's point of view, it's going to be a little bit of a wait and see."