States scramble to define 'meals,' as restaurants try to get around alcohol restrictions

California and New York are among the states issuing detailed rules specifying differences between meals and snacks.

Updated: July 24, 2020 - 11:30pm

State governments in recent days have been scrambling to give official government definitions to the word "meal," efforts undertaken due to numerous restaurants exploiting loopholes to get around alcohol service regulations imposed by their states' governors as part of pandemic re-opening plans. 

Many governors have instituted "phased" economic re-openings of their respective states, with each phase allowing slightly more economic freedom and activity than the one before it. Numerous regulations in several states stipulate that patrons may not order alcoholic drinks independently of ordering a full meal. 

Dining establishments across the country have exploited loopholes to get around those rules: Many have opted to classify a few potato chips or French fries as a "meal," thus formally satisfying state requirements while giving customers more flexibility in what they may order. 

State administrations have responded by promulgating new or clarified rules on what constitutes a "meal" according to the government, hoping to close those loopholes and ensure full compliance from bar and restaurant owners across their respective states.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board this week, for instance, said in a "clarifying guidance" document posted to its website that "sales of alcohol for on-premises consumption are only permissible as part of a larger transaction that includes a meal purchase."

"The term 'meal' is defined in section 406 of the Pennsylvania Liquor Code as 'food prepared on the premises, sufficient to constitute breakfast, lunch or dinner,'" the document continues. "The definition expressly states that a snack, such as pretzels, popcorn, chips, or similar food, does not meet the definition of a meal."

Though the relevant Pennsylvania statute does indeed exclude "pretzels, popcorn, chips or similar food" from the definition of "meal," it does not expressly state what constitutes a "sufficient" amount of food necessary to constitute a full meal. 

'Cuomo Chips' targeted by New York governor

Many restaurants in New York State were also skirting such regulations, offering patrons small amounts of food in order to ostensibly satisfy Gov. Cuomo's meal mandates. Some establishments were reportedly offering minuscule orders of "Cuomo Chips" in a quiet rebuke of the governor's mandates. 

Yet the New York State Liquor Authority this week issued updated guidance on its "requirement that licensees with on-premises service privileges serve food with alcoholic beverages," a rule that, like Pennsylvania's, explicitly forbids small-food service as a workaround. 

Restaurateurs throughout the state are directed to serve alcohol with "sandwiches, soups or other foods, whether fresh, processed, precooked or frozen." The liquor board in its updated orders clarified what constitutes "other foods."

"'Other foods' are foods which are similar in quality and substance to sandwiches and soups," the rules state. "For example, salads, wings, or hotdogs would be of that quality and substance; however, a bag of chips, bowl of nuts, or candy alone are not."  

Cuomo earlier this week publicly criticized state restaurants for allowing patrons to gather in groups to drink. 

"[Restaurants] were never supposed to institute outdoor drinking," he said on Tuesday. "The words are 'outdoor dining.' They took outdoor dining and used it as an opportunity to do outdoor drinking. That is not what the regulations permitted."

The state has suspended over two dozen liquor licenses since the regulations went into effect. 

In California, cheese sticks and pizza bites are out

California Gov. Gavin Newsom's state Alcoholic Beverage Control agency also issued similar guidance earlier this month, forbidding restaurants from serving smaller dishes to get around the state's orders. 

"Snacks" such as "pretzels, nuts, popcorn, pickles, and chips" do not qualify as "meals," the state ABC said on its website. Nor do "egg rolls, pot stickers, flautas, cups of soup, and any small portion of a dish that may constitute a main course when it is not served in a full portion or when it is intended for sharing in small portions."

Desserts are also excluded from the policy. 

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