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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / A frozen drink machine is seen at Main Street Meats on Tuesday, May 4, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

When Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee decreed that restaurants and bars across the state could provide alcohol to go, the move provided an unplanned-for revenue source for many who were struggling to stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic. He extended that decree this week, and a bill is before the House to extend it for two more years.

Lee extended the order through May 31 earlier in the year and Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville, and Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, have sponsored HB241/SB681, which passed in the Senate on April 28 after previously being cleared in the House. It would keep to-go sales until July 2023. Gov. Bill Lee's office has said he will sign the bill.

There are rules attached to alcohol-to-go sales for restaurants, such as the package must have a secure lid and food must also be part of the order.

Restaurateur Erik Niel, co-owner of Main Street Meats and Easy Bistro, is a fan of the idea, but not necessarily because it provides a huge revenue source these days.

"I think it's awesome so we can do as much business as we can, but the real bonus is that we invested quite a bit into the business with new take-out systems and [point of sale] operations and letting that go dormant would be a terrible waste," he said. "We appreciate them doing that."

Like some other area restaurants, Main Street Meats figured out a way to make its take-out and delivery options appealing, and as part of that it bought a frozen cocktail machine and created drink options that people could get along with their dinner entrees to take home.

Take-home alcohol sales have dropped from about 5% to about 1% of weekly sales, Niel said.

"As the summer has come along and people are doing more dining in, that demand has decreased, but we do still get people who have grown accustomed to getting takeout and it has become part of the package of what we offer," he said.

Niel said their frozen drinks and old fashions have been especially popular.

"We make boozy cocktails that are fun and that people don't want to make at home."

Niel said while the ability to offer such services has been beneficial, it was not without challenges early on.

"Just finding the right container was the biggest challenge," he said. "At the height of the pandemic, you couldn't find a plastic container that was appropriate and at a reasonable price."

The governor's decree covers alcohol, beer, wine and spirits, and while being able to sell the beers they brew on site in either cans or growlers has always been allowed at breweries such as Wanderlinger and Naked River, owners Chris Dial and Jake Raulston both said the take-out business has slowed quite a bit, though they occasionally get customers who want a meal and a beer to take home.

"It's still an option [at Wanderlinger], but we may get one or two orders every two or three weeks," Dial said.

"Most of our customers want to come in and eat," Raulston said.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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