image via the Romantic Vineyard

Back in June, I wrote about how Massachusetts is just fine without happy hours, however nice they might be for consumers. The idea of repealing the 28-year-old statewide ban on bargained drinks has resurfaced in recent months as the question of whether restaurants will be able to compete with casinos coming to the Bay State and giving out free drinks has been abuzz. Basically, why would you go to a restaurant when you could roll to a casino and get liquored up for free?

This morning, restaurateurs made clear their opposition to a change in the law at a public meeting at the McCormack building, voicing concerns about public safety and a competitive shift where price becomes more important than service, while also noting that the competition between restaurants and casinos isn’t as explicit as what is being let on.

“Let’s not forget, the reason the casinos want the changes to the Dram laws in the state of Massachusetts is not to do any discounting,” said Jeffrey Gates, a partner of the Acquitaine group, which owns and operates six restaurants in the Boston area. “They want to give things away. That’s not what anybody in this room actually is saying they want.”

“When I take my son to the dentist, balloons are given to him for free,” he added as a metaphor meant to explain the difference between alcohol at restaurants and casinos. “That same balloon at iParty costs a dollar. The reason why my dentist can afford to give away a helium filled balloon to my son is because he’s offsetting that with a 110 dollar teeth cleaning. iParty can’t give out free balloons because that is their income.”

Basically, the casinos make money off gambling, not drinks, while restaurants rely heavily on alcohol sales. That is to say, there is a difference between the two and casinos aren’t the driving force behind the debate.

The argument then relies more heavily on competitive pricing.

“I compete with many other operators and we compete on the basis of food, drinks, service, atmosphere, music,” said Douglas Bacon, owner and operator of six liquor license businesses that operate as restaurants and pubs, five of which, he said, operate in Allston/Brighton, an area heavily populated by college students. “If this regulation changes, price will become the primary reason, the primary competitive factor for many.”

But don’t other industries compete on the basis of price? To stay on the cross-business comparison, Bob’s Discount Furniture offers the same quality bed at a fraction of the cost, so say their commercials. If a restaurant could promise the same quality food, drinks, service, atmosphere and music, while also saving you money, isn’t that just good business? Or are restaurateurs just bitter about the idea of having to compete even more with their neighbors?

“If happy hours are allowed to come back in Massachusetts, an inexperienced operator who’s under capitalized can take a former shoe store, set up a bar and start selling two dollar drinks and undercut everyone else in the neighborhood and it certainly will be a race to the bottom,” added Bacon.

Should that hypothetical bar open up, neighboring restaurateurs would be well within the law to directly compete, however begrudgingly. Not to mention, if their experience and capital is put to good use, they will win out with the all important service, food, drinks, music and atmosphere.

The point is, saying you don’t want to compete with a new bar isn’t the sturdiest leg to stand on.

A much more compelling case is to be made with public safety in mind, as was the inspiration for the near three decades old law in the first place after a 20-year-old woman was killed by a drunk driver. And just about everyone made the point, most succinctly by Philip Frattaroli, owner of Ducali Pizzeria.

“These rules are fair and promote a responsible way of operating.”

Over consumption is obviously an issue without bargained drinks, but they see a difference.

“One piece of me is a businessman, one piece is a father,” added Gates. “Back in ’78, I remember nights like ‘Drink and Drown Night’… quite a few fights in there. Then another one was ‘Beat the Clock.’ The problem with all of that is we are removing one of the very strong parts of my industry, that there’s an economic impact when you drink and that helps regulate consumption of alcohol, certainly. The closer we get to free, the worse it is.”

Vincent Errichetti, executive director of the Restaurant and Business Alliance (R.A.B.A) did break from the staunch stance against happy hour a little to say that he would like to see tweaks made to say drink specials should last two, rather than seven days, adding that the biggest challenge is to draw customers on Sunday night.

“If this was limited to just beer and wine it would greatly assist restaurants whose greatest challenge is increasing business Sunday through Thursday nights,” he said.

State Treasurer Steve Grossman said he was mostly concerned with public safety, adding, “Our obligation is to listen and keep an open mind.”