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Chicago raises a glass to the end of a happy hour ban

Nova Safo Jul 17, 2015
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If you’re in Illinois, maybe you’re a little happier this week. That’s because happy hour is back.

After a 26-year ban and some serious lobbying by the state’s hospitality industry, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner reversed the ban Wednesday and was effective immediately.  

A bartender at Roots Handmade Pizza in Chicago.

A bartender at Roots Handmade Pizza in Chicago. 

Similar bans exist in 11 other states, and seven states have limits on happy hours. The aim of these laws, put in place decades ago, is to curb drunken driving and binge drinking. But advocates for ending the ban said it was outdated and cost the state tourism dollars.

“This law is a huge step forward for the entire hospitality industry,” says Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association. “We’ve gotten overwhelming support from all over the state.” 

Toia’s group campaigned to lift the happy hour ban, which also covered food-and-drink specials, such as a New Year’s Eve dinner package that might include unlimited champagne. 

“It’s all about conventions, tourism and culinary tourism,” he says. “And we feel this bill brought us into the 21st century.”

Kelly and Jacob Blair, who moved to Chicago from Austin, didn’t even know a ban was in place. But they did notice that things were different from Austin.

“In Austin, it was a big deal that you would chose restaurants and bars to go to based on their happy hour specials,” said Jacob Blair, who was with his wife at Chicago’s Roots Handmade Pizza not long after the ban was lifted. “When we moved here … there just seemed like none of them had specials at all.”

Scott Weiner, who is co-owner of Roots, says the restaurant depends a great deal on sports fans who come in to eat, drink and watch a game.

“Just doing a special during Monday Night Football, [was] something you couldn’t do,” says Weiner. “[The] happy hour law might be a way for us to keep business strong.”

Fountains serve up craft- and locally-brewed beers at Roots Handmade Pizza.

Fountains serve up craft and locally brewed beers at Roots Handmade Pizza. 

But the new law has limits, meant to discourage binge drinking and reduce the potential for drunken driving. Happy hour specials can be offered for no more than four hours a day, 15 hours a week, and not after 10 p.m.; the specials must be advertised a week in advance; and no volume discounts are allowed, such as two drinks for the price of one.

In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said excessive drinking cost the state of Illinois $9.3 billion. The median for all states was $2.9 billion. Costs included losses in workplace productivity, as well as health care and criminal justice expenses.  

Chris Bisaillon, who runs several restaurants and bars in Chicago, supports the new law, but is aware of the pitfalls.

“I can remember, in college, quarter-beer nights, or dollar-pitcher nights. And frankly, it just wasn’t a good environment. It really did encourage overconsumption,” Basaillon says, adding that he is worried some businesses will not behave responsibly under the new law and will go back to those kinds of practices.

At Roots Handmade Pizza, Scott Weiner says such concerns miss the point of the law. “We’re not trying to get people … overly served or drunk. We are looking for ways to get more butts in seats,” Weiner says.

And to that end, he plans to ramp up his marketing efforts, including happy hour specials.

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