Is happy hour making its triumphant return to Boston?
A petition circulated by Boston-based Cheers, a social app that connects groups of friends via free drinks, has garnered considerable interest in the week since it was launched: As of now, nearly 7,000 people have signed the online petition in support of bringing happy hour back to Massachusetts – one of just eight states that bans the practice of discounting drinks for a few hours every evening.
It’s an enticing prospect, especially for a city like Boston where phenomenal beer is everywhere – and seems to be getting more and more expensive. But while the thought of a 5 p.m. beer special might have your mouth watering, it might not be a one-size-fits-all solution for local bars and restaurants trying to remain competitive.
“Happy hour’s a time to look forward to, where people come together and have some fun. It’s a time to see friends and a place where you tend to meet people outside of your existing social circles you wouldn’t otherwise,” Cheers founder Sam Davidson told me.
Davidson said he was encouraged by the formation of the City’s Late Night Task Force, but felt some of the steps they were taking to restore Boston image as a “fun city,” like keeping bars open past 2 a.m., weren’t sufficient in shifting the perception of Boston as a “second-class city.”
“The plan is to see if there’s significant interest in bringing happy hour back to Boston and if so, we’d like to present that to Mayor Walsh and the Boston Late Night Task Force for their consideration,” said Davidson. Kansas and Illinois, he said, have both reinstated happy hour recently to seemingly positive results.
When the petition hits 10,000 signatures, Davidson plans to bring it to the City for their consideration: “It seems like something Boston might be ready for and might benefit significantly from.”
It’s worth clarifying that happy hour in Boston was not abolished on a city level, but in fact is part of a regulation enforced since 1984 by the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. That regulation – 204 CMR 4.00, more commonly referred to as the “Happy Hour regulation” – lists a host of prohibited practices, including:
- selling, offering to sell or delivering to any person or group of persons any drinks at a price less than the price regularly charged for such drinks during the same calendar week, except at private functions not open to the public;
- selling, offering to sell or delivering to any person an unlimited number of drinks during any set period of time for a fixed price, except at private functions not open to the public;
- selling, offering to sell or delivering drinks to any person or group of persons on any one day at prices less than those charged the general public on that day, except at private functions not open to the public.
(Also, since we’re on the subject, it’s against Mass. Law to order and drink a pitcher of any mixed drink by yourself, for what that’s worth.)
But back to happy hour.
“I think it makes sense to consider repealing the statewide ban on happy hour, but starting with a pilot program of happy hour in Boston might make the most sense as an intermediary step to start,” Davidson said when I mentioned the state’s ownership of the ban. “The state has recently passed acts that allow free drinks galore at state casinos and the city has run pilot programs to test extending bar hours in certain areas.”
Other arguments in favor of its return, as listed on the petition page, include the surge of services offering safe rides home, like Uber and Lyft; the advent of state marijuana dispensaries and casinos; lack of evidence that happy hour bans reduce drunk-driving deaths; and of course, the assertion that happy hour will help make Boston more fun, and thus more readily capable of retaining top talent that gets an education here before fleeing to greener pastures.
It’s a popular sentiment in Boston. And it’s not the first time the issue has come up: It was discussed (as in this Globe column) during the 2013 Boston mayor’s race, when proponents of repealing the ban pointed out that drinks are free in casinos, which would be newly legal in Massachusetts. On Tuesday, I ran my own ad hoc Twitter poll, which, despite a relatively small sample size, presents a scale tipped decidedly in one direction:
— Alex E. Weaver (@alexeweaver) July 5, 2016
One group who might not be so in favor, however, is local restaurant owners.
If you consider the time happy hour typically encompasses – between 5 and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday – you might understand why.
“Boston certainly does have some outdated laws, but I do think they help protect the consumer and the business owner by not allowing us to over serve patrons,” Cliff Dever, the owner of Warehouse Bar & Grille, told me. “My first concern with implementing a happy hour is that people will go nuts trying to crush drinks in a small amount of time just to save money. I think the whole happy hour idea is great if it’s done properly.”
If Boston changed the laws, Dever went on, they’d look to implement a happy hour program focused on drinks and food during off-peak hours “to help generate business that we otherwise wouldn’t have.”
But would that happy hour be as popular as the one down the street targeting young professionals fresh off a long day at work?
“One of the primary goals of happy hour is to generate more business for bars and the local economy by creating a time for people to get together at a time that would be a little slower otherwise,” said Davidsson. “And it seems to be working in cities like New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.”
It’s a point worth considering. As the city works to reinstate BYOB into hundreds of local restaurants, and competition for limited liquor licenses is at a fever pitch, changing laws like those governing happy hour could boost some local business while tanking others.
“Ultimately, will people just go wherever there’s a happy hour taking place?” said Dever. “If so, every bar is going to need to figure out how to best implement a happy hour that helps them drive in the most business. At the end of the day unless there are more people going out because of it, I’m not sure if it’s going to really make a difference.”