The Battle for Happy Hour

If you live in Massachusetts, you may or may not have seen recently that happy hour may be returning to the state.

If you don’t live in Massachusetts, you may or may not be shocked to find out that happy hour was banned here.

I’ll explain.

syracuse_chuckspitcherBack in the early 1980s, happy hour was a perfectly normal part of running a bar. Then, a 20-year-old girl named Kathleen Barry was killed by a drunk driver in the parking lot of a Ground Round (classy) in Braintree. The driver was her 20-year-old friend, Sheila MacManus, who had consumed at least seven beers prior to the accident. Note: Though they were both 20 at the time, they were of legal drinking age; the National Minimum Drinking Age Act didn’t go into effect until 1984. That promped Braintree to impose a happy hour ban for the town, making it the second to do so (Framingham banned happy hour specials in 1982). Sheila pled guilty to drunk driving and vehicular homicide, and her harsh sentence was a whopping ONE MONTH in prison. A 20-year-old girl had seven or more beers (it doesn’t mention the length of time), got into her car, ran over her friend, and for that got only one month in prison.

Naturally, because Massachusetts has such a panic-mode, knee-jerk reactionary system set up, instead of blaming a) the bar for overserving, b) the DJ of the bar for encouraging her to chug drinks or c) the 20-year-old driver with seven beers in her stomach, they decided that happy hour was to blame. MA does things like that. If Sunday’s IndyCar accident, which resulted in the death of driver Dan Wheldon (video clip), had happened in Boston, the Commonwealth would ban cars for everybody.

The incident was the last straw in a series of drunk driving accidents, and George R. McCarthy, the chairman of the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) had enough, saying “I’ve heard all the horror stories I’m going to listen to.” With the help of then-governor Michael Dukakis (whose alcoholic wife was busy drinking rubbing alcohol at the time), a ban on discounted or free drinks went into effect state-wide on Dec. 11, 1984, the so-called “happy hour bill.” Since then, every bar in the Commonwealth must submit a price list to the ABCC, and may not offer free drinks or discounts of any kind on alcohol, or have different prices for different days of the week. It also prohibits serving more than two drinks to one person at the same time, which means you can get a shot and a beer, but not a pitcher of beer for yourself. No games involving alcohol are allowed either… at Club 58 in downtown Quincy, there are beer pong tables, but you must fill the cups with water. No joke. It’s posted on the ABCC website as “Regulation 204-4.03: Certain Practices Prohibited.

spedshulhappyhourMassachusetts was the first in the nation to impose a state- Commonwealth-wide ban on drink specials. Since then, MA has been the ugly girl at the party, sitting over by the snack table watching everyone else having fun playing beer pong. In Syracuse, NY, there are posters at one of my old college haunts advertising $2.50 pitchers of beer. In Milwaukee we played beer pong in a bar. In MA, a pitcher of beer will set you back $10+ for a cheap macrobrew, since NO DISCOUNTS WHATSOEVER are allowed. You’d better have two or more people or they won’t sell you that pitcher, and you damn well can’t play any games with it. The only thing bars and restaurants are allowed to do is offer discounts on food, such as half-price appetizers, trying to lure in business.

This is what the drinkers of Massachusetts have to endure.

Skip ahead skip ahead, and now Mass has passed legislation to bring casinos and gambling to the state Commonwealth instead of losing business to Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods in Connecticut. What do casinos usually have? Free drinks while you’re gambling. But wait… you CAN’T serve free drinks in Mass. Hmmm… what to do? Well, let’s pass a bill that says it’s ok for casinos to serve free and/or discounted drinks. Ah, but now all the bar and restaurant owners are upset, saying the casinos will have an unfair advantage and take their business. Yikes, ok, well what if we make it the same for everybody? If casinos can have discounts, then so can bars and restaurants. So, after the original casino bill was passed by the Mass House of Representatives, the Senate tacked on a bill to that effect, called the Restaurant Equality Amendment. Since the House passed the original, they now have to approve the updated version passed by the Senate, including the happy hour amendment.

And that’s where we are.

shipyardpumpkinSo, here’s some of the interesting factors. The amendment was introduced by State Senator Robert Hedlund. Why should that matter? Well, Hedlund is co-owner of Four Square, a new restaurant and bar in Weymouth landing. I’ve been there a couple times with the Lady Friend (the last time for trivia night, where we placed second) and they have an excellent craft beer selection. Naturally, it would seem that as co-owner, he’d profit directly from legislation allowing drink specials. Of course, I’m pro-happy hour, but that little tidbit shouldn’t be overlooked.

On the other side of the fence are tardbabies like Tony Castagnozzi, co-owner of Rattlesnake Bar & Grill on Boylston Street. I read an article yesterday featuring this dbag and was incensed. He’s whining about several things that don’t make sense, claiming that firstly, overserving is going to be “a manager’s nightmare,” and secondly, drunk driving problems will skyrocket. Joey Arcari of Tavern in the Square in Cambridge claims it will lead “lead to everyone undercutting everyone.” Our old pal Dukakis, the liberal asshat who got us into this mess had the balls to say “There’s absolutely no question that people will be killed, maimed and injured as a result of this,” referring to increased drunk driving incidents.

Broad picture first: Rattlesnake is a douchy overpriced place on Boylston. Tavern in the Square is an overpriced place on Mass Ave (two locations in Porter Sq and Central Sq). Why are they scared by this? Because they’re both wildly overpriced due to their premium locations. If this law went into effect, places like the Pour Farm and Whiskey’s on Boylston, with a younger crowd, would rake in the money gained from offering drink specials. The Rattlesnake isn’t about to discount their $9 glass of house wine, and there are TONS of bars in Cambridge that will undercut Tavern.

So let’s take this point by point.
– Overserving: It is illegal to serve alcohol to someone who is “visibly intoxicated,” and the happy hour amendment won’t change that. Nor should it. However, Castagnozzi claims “It’s hard enough to keep track when you’re serving one drink per person, never mind two drinks.” Buddy, if you can’t keep track of two drinks, you shouldn’t be running a bar. That comes down to responsibility on the part of the business, and clearly you don’t want to bother. That’s your problem.

– Undercutting between bars: Arcari of Tavern is worried the amendment is “going to lead to everyone undercutting everyone.” Uh, that’s called BUSINESS. You have to give the customer something; good food, good service, good prices, unique location or atmosphere… if you’re twice as expensive as the place down the block, then you can’t claim they’re “undercutting” you. That’s called competition. Step it up or you’ll go out of business. Again, that’s on you, pal.

elsadriver– Drunk Driving: Clearly a problem, as anyone driving from Boston to Quincy on a Saturday night can attest to. It’s like Mario Kart on the Expressway (oh I would LOVE to have some red turtle shells). However, in addition to banning happy hour, MA has drastically increased the laws and penalties for drunk driving, including lower limits (BAC of 0.08), ignition interlock device requirements for repeat offenders (Melanie’s Law), higher fines and longer jail sentences. Drunk driving has fallen 23% across the nation since 1982, and you want me to believe that banning happy hour had anything to do with that? What about all the other states that DIDN’T ban it? Dukakis is an irrelevant whiny crybaby with an alky wife, and the bar owners are only worried because bars are held responsible if there is an incident after someone drinks at their establishment. Train your staff properly or accept the consequences. Besides, who is driving to these places? You’re telling me most patrons are driving to the Rattlesnake? No way. Castagnozzi and others are using the drunk driving excuse as a scare tactic because they’re worried they’ll lose customers to more reasonably priced bars, especially if drink specials are offered.

So, this got wordy, but it’s an important topic around here these days. The amendment has yet to be ratified by a committee, and even then I believe it can still be vetoed by the governor. I’m not sure on that. The bill also states that restaurants and bars can offer the same drink specials as casinos, so I’m sure there will be a loophole in there that someone will exploit saying “well, the casinos aren’t even built yet, so no happy hour until they’re up and running.” We’ll see. For now, the battle continues, but progress is being made.

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