In March, the Maui County Liquor Commission made two changes to county liquor laws, both of which bring the county up-to-date with the state’s laws and what is permitted in all other counties in Hawaii:
- If you buy a bottle of wine in a restaurant, and don’t finish it, you can take the remainder home with you.
- Restaurants can choose whether or not to allow you to bring your own wine (corkage).
No one is arguing about the first change … but the second one? It’s spawned a protest from several restaurants, and a counter-protest from others.
Corkage rules are an odd beast. Each state has their own set of laws, and often counties, or even municipalities, have their own.
We didn’t even realize the laws had changed until The Maui News reported last week that about 400 petition cards had been submitted to the Maui County Liquor Commission (MCLC) asking them to reverse their decision and disallow corkage.
What, exactly, is the issue? Restaurants who want the rule repealed point to lower overall sales (which hurt server tips) and liability issues (what if that screw-cap bottle of wine really contains liquor?). The Maui News, reporting on the MCLC hearing last week, ran the following quote from Bev Gannon’s (Gannon’s, Hali’imaile General Store, and Joe’s Bar & Grill) testimony:
“Since this law passed, because I’ve chosen not to allow outside wine in, I’ve had customers shout at my managers, tell waiters that they will never come back, walk out because we will not serve them their bottle of wine,” Gannon said. “My choice not to serve outside wine will negatively impact my business. Customers will penalize me.”
Meanwhile Aaron Placourakis, who owns Sarento’s on the Beach, Nick’s Fish Market, and Son’z at Swan Court, is quoted in Maui Time as saying:
“Instead of being able to make a nice sale, say, $80, $90 or $100 a bottle, all of a sudden customers can now bring in wine,” he said. “Where does it end? Can you bring in your own fish? Bring in your own steak? There are thousands of waiters in this industry — if they think this is a good idea, I’d like to hear from them.”
On the other side of the argument, Peter Merriman of Merriman’s Kapalua and Monkeypod Kitchen testified that having corkage at his restaurants on Big Island and Kauai has been a good experience. Again, according to the Maui News, he said:
“It’s a small amount of money, but we find it actually increases our sales,” he said. “We’ve had virtually no problems whatsoever.”
Another prominent restaurateur, Floyd Christenson, owner of Mama’s Fish House, said:
“I question what all the fuss has been made over this law. It’s very little used,” Christenson said. “Last month, in the month of June, we served 24,500 people. Twenty people brought in bottled wine to have corkage. . . . Mostly when they bring it in, it’s for birthdays, anniversaries, big special occasions, so it’s not going to hurt anybody’s income.”
Christenson goes on to speculate in the article that local catering businesses are pushing for the repeal, because they liked having the county be “the bad guys.”
In short, now that restaurants have the choice of whether to allow corkage or not, they are forced to take responsibility for the decision to disallow outside liquor (and suffer the consequences of that decision).
Our feeling is that it’s a mistake to repeal the law, and it’s a mistake for restaurants to ban outside wine. The vast majority of customers will not take advantage of corkage to begin with — and those who do tend to be wine geeks who spend a great deal of money on restaurants whether they bring their own burgundy or not. Check out this review posted on TripAdvisor on July 9 for a cogent argument for just how dedicated this type of consumer is to punishing restaurants who don’t allow corkage. (Second point of the very lengthy review.)
Corkage is a nice thing to do for your customers. And some restaurants turn it to their advantage, by using it as a promotion.
Let’s be real: restaurants mark up wine by two, three, and in some cases four times it’s cost. All assertions about the servers’ tips aside, we suspect the reason some restaurants (including some of our favorites) oppose this new rule is simple: they like selling you an expensive bottle of wine. As a friend of ours once said about owning a bar in San Francisco:
“Selling alcohol is the only business I know where I can charge $5 for $.25 worth of liquid.”
Charging a corkage fee (Mama’s is $35 — stiff, but then, it’s Mama’s) is fine: we think of it the same way we do a split plate charge. Slightly obnoxious, but if you really want to drink your own wine, reasonable — especially if you are bringing an expensive bottle to a fine meal.
Since James and I rarely drink when we’re out — it deadens the taste buds, so we imbibe only when it’s a mostly-social visit — we’re wondering what you think. The MCLC will have to respond to these formal petitioners on August 8th at their next meeting. They’ll either deny the petition to reverse the rule, or they’ll schedule a public hearing.
What do they — and Maui restaurants — need to know about corkage?
Would you do what Bev Gannon’s customers have done — refuse to eat there?
Would you only eat at restaurants that allow you to bring your own wine?