Hanna: OLCC hits bars, restaurants when they are most vulnerable
The Oregon Liquor Control Commission voted in early April to approve "minimum unit pricing" — a policy that will raise prices on only the lowest-priced distilled spirits products. The new markups will range as high as 40% on the most affordable vodka brands.
As the owner of Mad Hanna, a neighborhood dive bar, I was surprised and disappointed that the commission made this decision at a time when the bar and restaurant industry remains incredibly fragile. More than 1,200 Oregonians wrote letters opposing this policy, many of whom were bar and restaurant owners like me.
Oregon is already on the expensive end of alcohol pricing, and beginning in July, we will pay an average of 20% more on our least expensive inventory.
To raise prices this time is abject cruelty towards small businesses struggling to make ends meet. Our only choices are to absorb the cost, or pass it on to our struggling neighbors. Neither of which is ok at this time. This is not just another policy — it's a decision that will hurt my business, my employees, and my customer base at the worst possible time.
I believe that prior to this decision, the OLCC had shown a commitment to balancing COVID-safety measures with sensible changes to help preserve the drinking and eating culture throughout our state. This is a terrible step backwards.
The commission's desire to encourage responsible consumption is admirable, however, Director Steve Marks stated during the meeting that filling a budget shortfall is a major motivating factor for implementing this policy now. Funds will go into the state's general fund — not directly into alcohol addiction recovery efforts — and it is only projected (based on best case assumptions) to reduce demand for alcohol by a mere 0.5%. Additionally, this policy only targets value brands consumed by low-income drinkers, leaving expensive brands consumed by the wealthy and privileged untouched.
Is it really worth risking the survival of Oregon's locally owned bars and restaurants during a once-in-a-century pandemic for a policy that will, at the very best, raise a few dollars for the state by taxing the poor while barely making a dent in the targeted problem?
My establishment is a neighborhood community center that has earned a reputation as one of the safest places in Portland to relax, eat and be merry. Despite losing more than six months of revenue in 2020, we continue to fight hard to keep our doors open while spending dwindling funds on safety measures. We can't begin to truly recover until this pandemic is completely over — and right now, as Multnomah County re-enters the "high risk" category, we're not even close.
The OLCC made the wrong decision by passing minimum unit pricing during this pandemic, and Oregon's vulnerable restaurant industry will pay the price. I strongly urge the OLCC commissioners, along with our state's elected officials, to reconsider adding any more burden to the hospitality industry until we have an opportunity to get back on our feet.
Liz Hanna of Northeast Portland owns Mad Hanna, a dive bar. She has 27 years of experience in the hospitality industry. She is on the steering committees for ORLA's Portland Kitchen Cabinet and the Cully Boulevard Alliance.
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