ALTON — A recent change in happy hour laws means good news for area bar and restaurant owners and patrons alike.
For years, hourly drink specials were prohibited and establishments were forced to maintain the same price all day. The ban on happy hour drink specials in Illinois was enacted in 1989, but now that Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has signed SB 398, happy hours can return immediately.
In fact, at Bluff City Grill, owner Cathy Gross has already begun a Tuesday through Saturday afternoon happy hour, offering beer and well drinks at a discount, as well as a wings-and-a-beer package deal.
However, many area business owners are still familiarizing themselves with the particulars of the law before they’re ready to bring happy hour specials back.
According to SB 398, use of alcohol in games or as a prize is still prohibited, and bars cannot offer an “all-you-can-drink” special at a fixed price, except in cases of private functions. Volume specials, such as two-for-one offers, remain illegal. Happy hour specials may only be in effect four hours per day and 15 hours per week, may only be offered before 10 p.m., and must be advertised a week in advance.
“We’re very, very excited that Gov. Rauner signed the Culinary and Hospitality Modernization Act,” Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said in a recent phone interview.
He explained that these changes will level the playing field and help modernize Illinois’ restaurant and tourism industries.
“Back in the day, cooks were cooks, and now they’re chefs,” he said. “Bartenders were bartenders, and now they’re mixologists.”
He added that the bill included education measures intended to ensure a “world-class workforce in the state of Illinois.”
Toia also emphasized the pragmatism of the bill, mentioning the prohibitions still in place, and mentioned that Chicago and Rockford have already shown successes in the addition of happy hours.
Area restaurant and bar owners Russ Smith of Elijah P’s and Bossanova, Aaron Agne of the Ragin’ Cajun Piano Bar, Chris Keidel of the Big Muddy Pub, and Tim Brueggeman and Greg Graham of Spirits Lounge and 300 State were all enthusiastic about implementing happy hour specials, although none of them had decided on specifics.
“You’ve got to find out what works for your bar,” Graham said.
Brueggeman added that the new law would provide “an opportunity for people to network or get together with their friends.”
“Otherwise, it might be cost-prohibitive for them,” he said. “Happy hour would probably bring people out who possibly aren’t going out due to cost.”
At Chez Marilyn’s, Jacob Scarborough said he planned to begin offering martini and beer specials “during our lull times from 2 until 4 p.m.” as soon as next week, which pleased bartender Beth Adney, who usually works that shift.
“I know Missouri does well with it during their slow times of the day,” Scarborough said.
James Rogalsky of Old Bakery Beer Company says the law change “is going to help us out — any way we can figure out how to get more people in here … especially during the weeknights.”
Angelo Boukas, proprietor of Jimmy the Greek’s, said the change in the law offers “a chance to advertise … I feel like we can at least be on the same playing field as Missouri and not send our revenue over there.”
One of the perks of the new law is the ability for restaurateurs to offer a meal package that would include food and alcohol pairings at a fixed price.
“I can serve a three-course or four-course meal with a bottle of wine (included in the price),” Boukas said. “We’re able to … give away wine with steaks.”
He added that he plans to implement this change very soon.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but Illinois still has a long way to go,” said Chris Keidel from behind the bar of the Big Muddy Pub. The owner added that he does not plan to run the same happy hour specials all the time, as “variety is the spice of life.”
That phrase fits, as Keidel offers what many consider the best Bloody Mary in the area.
In that same vein, Graham said happy hour wouldn’t be of much benefit to anyone if all the bar owners simply offered dollar beers. Many local business owners see SB 398 as a chance to keep things interesting for their patrons.
Alton Mayor Brant Walker also expressed approval of the new law.
“If it helps our small entrepreneurs promote their businesses, I think it’s a great thing,” Walker said.