Restaurateurs oppose return of happy hour
Sen. Hedlund says he supports changes to "archaic" regulations
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
Restaurateurs warned on Tuesday that young, college-aged drinkers looking to take advantage of cheap alcohol would become a larger presence at local bars and pose a threat to public safety if the state changes its “happy hour” regulations.
“If I was 21, I would probably be very for it, because I remember going to Boston University and living in Allston and having a great time,” said Steve DiFillippo, owner of Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse. DiFillippo, who said he is now in his 50s and a father has changed his perspective over the years and said, “Here we are going to increase drinking. There’s only one reason someone goes to happy hour and that’s to get drunk.”
The gaming act of November 2011 allows for eventual casinos to distribute free drinks to patrons on the gaming floor, and the law also required the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission to hold a series of public hearings and write a report on whether the ABCC’s regulations should be amended to protect bars from “unfair competition” from casinos.
The ABCC, which held three hearings in Bridgewater, Chelmsford and Worcester prior to the hearing in Boston on Tuesday, had not yet heard from anyone in favor of allowing happy hour to return to Bay State bars – though Sen. Robert Hedlund (R-Weymouth) said on Tuesday that changes should be made to the “archaic” regulations.
Previously the only proponent to testify at any of the previous three hearings in favor of a return to happy hour was a package store owner who arrived at the Chelmsford hearing in favor of allowing happy hour, but changed his mind after hearing the rest of the testimony.
“Initially he came in wanting the change and then midway through the hearing he changed his mind,” Assistant Commissioner Susan Corcoran told the News Service.
Treasurer Steve Grossman, who appoints ABCC commissioners, said he was waiting for the report to be issued but said he erred on the side of public safety. The ABCC report is due on June 30, 2013.
“My biggest concern is about public safety,” Grossman told reporters. He also said it was “our obligation to listen very carefully and keep an open mind.”
Happy hour was banned by ABCC regulations in 1984 and some of the restaurateurs recalled the era when bars could offer discounted or free drinks during certain hours.
“When I was 20 back when the drinking age was a little less back in 1978, I remember nights like ‘Drink and Drown’ night. That was a famous one that used to happen… Quite a few fights in there, and then another one was ‘Beat the Clock’,” said Jeffrey Gates of the Aquitaine Group.
The regulations were changed about 28 years ago in the wake of the Sept. 9, 1983 death of 20-year-old Kathleen Barry, of Weymouth, who was killed after riding atop a friend’s car in the parking lot of a Ground Round in Braintree. Barry and her friend had won free pitchers of beer in a “name that tune” competition, and went for a joy ride that resulted in Barry’s body being run over and dragged 50 feet.
Around the same time that happy hour was banned, the drinking age was raised from 20 to 21, and Gov. Michael Dukakis launched a designated driver campaign.
While restaurateur Philip Frattaroli was born in 1982, too young to remember the age of happy hours, he said he had been affected by the more lax attitude toward alcohol.
“My father was hit by a drunk driver when my mother was pregnant with me and almost lost his life from a driver who was coming from happy hour,” said Frattaroli, whose family owns Artu and other restaurants. His father was hit by a woman while walking along a road in Medford.
The idea of rekindling happy hour in Massachusetts drinking establishments was raised by Hedlund, who owns Four Square Restaurant and Bar, but said he would not want to offer drink specials there even if the regulations changed.
Hedlund and Sen. James Timilty (D-Walpole) had originally proposed an amendment that would override the ABCC’s ban, but in the face of resistance from the House, they opted for the ABCC to study the issue instead.
“Selling a pint of Harpoon for the same price as a bottle of Bud is hardly going to promote binge drinking,” Hedlund told the News Service. He said the British Beer Company had to discontinue a “Craft Beer Night” on Wednesdays because it ran afoul of the ABCC’s code. Hedlund said that while no one wants a return to the 1970s bar culture, craft beer nights should be allowed.
While supporting the ban on happy hour discounts, when drinks prices change according to the hour of day, Vincent Errichetti of the Restaurant and Business Alliance also said he favored some loosening of regulations.
ABCC regulations only allow drinks to be discounted below the regular menu price for one-week periods; Errichetti said he prefers allowing establishments to discount drinks for two-day periods.
“If this was limited to just beer and wine it would greatly assist restaurants whose greatest challenge is increasing business Sunday through Thursday nights,” Errichetti said.
Later, DiFillippo rebuked Errichetti, noting that his Restaurant and Business Alliance – which was founded in 2011 by Phantom Gourmet CEO Dave Andelman – is different from the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, which opposes any changes to the ABCC’s regulations.
“They have their own association, and if you notice he doesn’t have one restaurateur here today defending his case,” said DiFillippo.
After the hearing, Hedlund said he had argued with the MRA’s Stephen Clark whom he said had a “knee jerk” reaction to any changes even though the group’s members are often unwittingly in violation when they offer discounted pitchers, buckets of beer or a “margarita night”.“Everything’s great. They don’t want changes but yet some of their members are in violation of the law every day. It seems inconsistent to me,” Hedlund said. Noting that many of the speakers were from successful restaurant firms, Hedlund said, “If I were them I’d want the status quo, too.”
A fifth hearing is scheduled for Sept. 18 in Northampton.