Hearing explores changes to ‘Happy Hour’ restrictions

Boston-based restaurateurs said this week they oppose the return of the so-called “happy hour,” a time when they would be allowed to serve free or temporarily discounted drinks. But some Dorchester operators feel differently, saying loosening the statewide “happy hour” ban could help business.

The topic is on the table because the casino law passed last year exempts gaming operators from the ban, allowing them to provide free drinks on the casino floor.

The Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, overseen by state Treasurer Steven Grossman, is exploring the possibility of changing the ban in order to allow restaurants and bars to fairly compete with gaming establishments, per a provision in the casino law. A public hearing was held in Boston on Tuesday, with Grossman in attendance.

Kenneth Osherow, who co-owns the Savin Bar and Kitchen, said he is encouraged by the discussion of a potential return to happy hour.

His restaurant currently offers a “happy hour” deal with oysters for a dollar. “That’s a way for us to offer something of value to our customers without having to base it around alcohol,” he said. “The thing is, though, I do think that some sort of happy hour would help small business.”

Osherow noted most of his customers walk to the restaurant, which is located on Savin Hill Ave. and across from the MBTA station which, like the restaurant, is named after the neighborhood.

John Comeau, assistant general manager at the Ledge in Lower Mills, favored loosening some of the restrictions and said casinos shouldn’t be exempt from the regulations. 

“They shouldn’t have special treatment,” he said.

Grossman told reporters he is awaiting a report from the ABCC, due by January 2013.

His “overarching concerns” are about public safety, Grossman added. “But I also think it’s my obligation and our obligation to listen very carefully, to keep an open mind, to let anybody who has a desire to speak speak, and then to take that all into account, and to leave no opinion out in the final report written no later than next January 31.”

Alan Dempsey, an executive at Legal Seafoods, said he opposes loosening of regulations, citing a safety issue. Other restaurant executives and owners testified against any changes, saying they would prompt a “race to the bottom” regarding to pricing and safety.

The Bay State’s happy hour ban was instituted in the 1980s under Gov. Michael Dukakis. “I guarantee you that if happy hours are restored, dozens of people will be killed or maimed on our highways because of it,” Dukakis told the News Service in October.

State Sen. Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican, provided testimony to ABCC and called for loosening the restrictions.

“As a part owner of a restaurant, I have witnessed firsthand the archaic nature of our liquor laws,” he wrote. “For instance, my restaurant could legally serve forty cent shots of cheap tequila so long as the drink was sold at that price for seven days, because under the law a product cannot be sold below cost nor can price fluctuate within a seven day period. However, it is illegal for a restaurant to advertise a ‘Craft Beer Night’ where Massachusetts-brewed craft beers are sold at a discounted price once a week.”

Hedlund wrote that he is not personally advocating for a “return to the days of “Happy Hours’, and I doubt that many restaurant owners would embrace the promotion if it were now deemed legal.”

Instead, he said, he is pushing for a “common sense review of some of these archaic provisions, so that restaurant and tavern owners have some flexibility in promoting their businesses.”

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.