Happy hour (not so) special

 Illinois rolled back its happy hour ban for bars last week, opening the way for nightly specials to return for the first time since 1989

By Nate Johnson & Shane Nicholson
The Rock River Times

After a 26-year hiatus, happy hour is back in the state of Illinois.

Governor Bruce Rauner signed SB398 (officially, the Culinary and Hospitality Modernization Act) on July 15, changing the laws that clamped down on alcohol sales in an attempt to encourage moderation and cut down on drinking and driving incidents.

While the legislation does relieve the restrictions placed on bars and restaurants, it does not completely remove them.

Under the law, establishments can offer time-specific discounts for beer, wine and spirits for up to four hours a day (and at the most, 15 hours per week) where they were previously required to hold any drink specials for the entire day.

Establishments are still prohibited from offering any two-for-one specials. In addition, bars can not increase the volume of any drink without increasing the price accordingly.

The legislation also removes some arcane language regarding the pairing of drinks with meals, a move that the Illinois Restaurant Association hopes will give the state both a boost in tourism and an influx of near $2 billion in sales tax yearly from the dining industry.

Any buzz around the legislation seems to be slow to build around Rockford establishments. Rural on Tap’s Nick Fosberg said, “I don’t think it’s going to affect Rural. I think what will happen is you will see some owners start to play the price war game, thinking that the lowest price is going to drive in traffic.”

Matt Idzikowski, owner of Vintage @ 501 with 15 years of experience in the service industry, says patience will be the name of the game as establishments decide how to handle the change in the law.

“I’m going to wait and see how it all pans out,” he said. “I’ve never ran a bar that’s had a happy hour. It’s been such a long amount of time (for the state) that I’m not sure the impact that it will have.”

He says that bars quick to embrace the rollback on the law may actually drive customers away who have gotten used to the status quo.

“The problem with (the law) is that we have trained our customers in Illinois that certain drink specials last all day long. You could actually see it deter some business because those specials won’t be available all day, just a few hours.”

Chris Manuel, Vice President of the Rockford Brewing Company, said, “Our bars and restaurants will be assessing our plans for the new happy hour laws.”

He feels optimistic about the renewed law’s prospects for business. “Look for us to join into the opportunity. We look forward to see how the public enjoys the ability to have happy hour. In the future, it will tell us if all our customers will enjoy the privilege they have not had since 1989.”

Fosberg feels that regular customers aren’t going to make a decision on where to take their business based on short term deals.

“In reality, most people don’t look at price as their number one reason for visiting a bar or restaurant. Most people would rather pay a little more for great service, nice atmosphere and tasty products. That’s what we focus on.”

Kryptonite owner Chris Wachowiak says the state should be applauded for allowing bar and restaurant owners the chance to have a bit more flexibility and freedom with the change.

“I appreciate government allowing businesses the opportunity to decide if we would like to run happy hour specials. It’s not too often outdated laws get looked at or even updated in our state.”

Mike Leifheit of The Irish Rose took the business-centric view a step further: “If they’re going to make it illegal, make it illegal. If it’s going to be legal, stay out of my business and let me run it.”

And Joe Castrogiovanni, owner of Giovanni’s and its related establishments, held a similar viewpoint on the need for state guidance.

“Until we actually get all the requirements, rules and regulations on this from the state, I’m uncertain,” he said.

“Why does the state make it legal and then put regulations on it? Let the private businesses regulate it.”

But others in the industry told The Rock River Times their primary worry was that some bars may not be able to effectively manage customers who drink too much during happy hour.

“My concern,” one owner said, “is that you’re going to see places where staff isn’t trained to deal with drunks.

“You’re going to potentially create situations where you’ve got effectively [what are] kids serving drinks to people looking to get as drunk as they can for as cheap as they can.”

He said that while his staff goes through rigorous training to ensure customers consume alcohol in safe manner, other businesses may need to look at their practices before changing their policies.

“Any bar looking to move to a happy hour establishment needs to make sure their staff is prepared to know when to say ‘No’ to a customer.”

Another bar manager said she felt that the reintroduction of happy hour may place undue burden on staff to try to keep away patrons who could cause trouble for her establishment.

“We’ve worked hard as an industry to crack down on troublemakers in our bars,” she said.

“Even if you’re not at an establishment that’s going to embrace this change you’re still going to have people coming in with that expectation–that they can get a buzz on a few dollars anywhere.”

As part of the bill, the Beverage Alcohol Sellers and Servers Education and Training program was made mandatory for all employees who pour and serve alcoholic drinks.

Already required in neighboring states, the program trains servers to learn signs of intoxication and watch for underage patrons.

Idzikowski says that required training for servers will be a key to seeing happy hour come back safely.

“Everyone has to have certification now,” he said, “so that goes a long way toward fixing any problems that we may see.”

Matt Odorowski, manager of downtown’s Social and Abreo restaurants, said it was crucial for establishments to take a measured approach.

“I think it’s important that you crawl before you walk, so I think it’s a way to address the subject in a cautious and responsible way.”

But he’s enthusiastic at the opportunities the new law can present, saying, “Hopefully the effects will be favorable, so we can reach out and touch more guests for each restaurant we have.”

While the legislation took effect immediately upon Rauner’s approval, establishments are required to post their specials seven days in advance, meaning that the first ripples will be seen towards the end of this week.

Editor & Publisher Frank Schier contributed.

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