Boston’s War on Happy Hour Needs to End
It’s five o’clock somewhere…but not here. Let’s pour one out for our antiquated liquor laws.
Happy hour opponents use as evidence a 2013 ABCC study that found little public support for reviving the attraction. The five hearings that the ABCC held drew a mere 57 people—the vast majority operators, or representatives of industry trade organizations with a vested interest in keeping drinks at full price. “Most restaurant operators, not all, are against bringing happy hour back,” says Steve Clark, the director of government affairs for the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “Would they like to offer a price special on quiet days of the week? Sure. But going back to the days of two-for-ones is not something most operators want.”
Liability is also a concern, says Sean Griffing, co-owner of the Boston restaurants Trade and Porto. He’s worried that happy hour encourages customers to slam down drinks because it’s in their financial interest to guzzle cocktails before the time expires. “I can’t say that it won’t work,” Griffing says, “but 4 a.m. closing works in other cities, and we don’t have that here. Open containers works in other cities as well. Just because it works there doesn’t mean we should be doing it here. If it happens, we’ll all figure it out…but it isn’t something that we want to be associated with. Is that what we want Boston to be?”
sam davidson, cofounder of an app called Cheers, which brings groups of people together for friend-dates and offers complimentary drinks as an incentive, is one of the dreamers who does. At the end of June, Davidson, a 27-year-old Boston University graduate, registered the domain happyhourboston.com and launched a petition in an attempt to bring the ritual back to our city. It was quickly signed by more than 10,000 people.
“I grew up in Boston and I went to school here, and it has always been a talking point among friends—a letdown, or source of frustration—that Boston has so much potential and is such a great city, and it seemed like it would make for a great happy hour town,” says Davidson, who admittedly has a vested interest with his business. “I’d heard a bunch of friends complain about it but never saw anyone do anything. So we wanted to start something and see what we could do.”
Since Davidson launched his petition, nearly every publication in the state has chimed in, and more than a few bar owners and bartenders are, thankfully, beginning to brainstorm ideas for how to make this nutty proposal work. After all, if we can dig a multibillion-dollar hole through the heart of the city, actually convince people to hang out on the waterfront, and even turn Somerville into a fancy-dining mecca, finding a way to sell a few cheap drinks should be feasible.
While it may seem like the restaurant and bar industry in Boston is booming, profit margins remain razor thin, and many businesses spend their first several hours practically empty. Encouraging guests to show up earlier could help kick-start the industry and give a much-needed boost to bars struggling to lure folks in for an afterwork beer. “Our bars and restaurants across the city are desolate after work, often empty until a dining rush at 7 p.m.,” says Kevin Mabry, the bar manager at Capo, a new restaurant in South Boston. “A happy hour only ensures that we’ll get people in earlier and help lower costs while keeping staff morale up in a city that is desperately in need of hospitality employees in the front of house and back of house.”
Franklin Restaurant Group CEO David DuBois has witnessed this firsthand. While his Boston restaurants—including Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar and Tasty Burger—are barred from hosting drink specials, the Washington, DC, Tasty Burger outpost serves up happy hour five days a week. “I just think every bartender has to be trained, and has to serve responsibly no matter what,” he says. “Let’s say someone can get a $5 martini. You still don’t feed that person three martinis. You still have to use logic. You’re not trying to hurt people.”
Evidence suggests that Boston’s approach to drinking (and serving) is far more responsible than it was in 1984, the year we banned happy hour. For one thing, the drinking age is higher—we raised it from 20 to 21 in 1985. It’s also a lot tougher for underage customers to get served these days: IDs are trickier to forge, and the notoriously laissez-faire Boston bars of yesteryear are under more pressure than ever to card young patrons aggressively, thanks to ABCC crackdowns.
Not only are we drinking differently, we’re also getting around the city differently. And it’s here that the staunchest opponent of happy hour could also be its inadvertent ally. MADD spokespeople have long made the argument that with “so many options available, there is no reason for anyone to drink and drive in a city like Boston.” Okay, the T may not always be the most reliable, and late-night service was just scuppered again. But never before has it been easier to summon a designated driver. With the explosion of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, it’s no stretch to say that our increased transportation options are a strong argument for taking a hard look at happy hour laws once again.
Davidson says he’s received inquiries from the mayor’s office and feels optimistic about the Walsh administration’s recent efforts to loosen some of the city’s outdated drinking prohibitions, such as pushing for later closing hours for bars. But he certainly has his work cut out for him if he expects his petition to go anywhere. Any changes would have to go through the ABCC, which declined to comment for this article, and would require legislative action—neither of which seems likely any time soon.
It’s a shame, because we’ve made so many other positive changes in our city recently. Thirty years ago, the happy hour ban might have been one of them—but in the intervening decades, we’ve cleaned up our act. It’s finally time Boston gets a buyback.