Virginia restaurants can now advertise happy hours

For nearly 30 years, restaurants could only advertise happy hours within their premises. That changes today.

Update #1 — January 29, 2014; 6:20 AM

Beginning today, Virginia restaurants may advertise their happy hour specials on social media, radio, TV, as well as in online and print publications, revoking previous limitations that had been in effect since 1985 (see below).

While restaurants may now advertise the days and times of their happy hours, they are still prohibited from mentioning specific drink specials.

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Original — November 04, 2013

Virginia restaurants can legally advertise their happy hours1 after Governor McDonnell signs off on a Virginia Alcohol and Beverage Control (ABC) recommendation, which will likely happen later this year.

“We’ve been trying to modernize every regulation that we have,” said ABC Chief Operating Officer Curtis Coleburn about ABC’s recent 18-month-long internal review. He said most restaurants would like to be able to advertise happy hour times, especially on social media. Once the Governor approves the ABC recommendation,2 restaurants can advertise their happy hours on Facebook, in newspapers, on radio and TV, etc. It’s been illegal for restaurants to advertise happy hours since 1985.3 Current advertising restrictions proved too troublesome for one Carytown restaurant.

“I actually quit doing happy hour because of it,” said Julia Battaglini, owner of Secco Wine Bar and restaurant. “I just don’t want to spend half of my precious social media time worrying about what I’m violating” vis-à-vis advertising specials. “It was too hard.” She said she’s open to revisiting happy hours after the regulation change takes effect.

The changes will permit restaurants to advertise the days and times of their happy hours, but not their specific happy hour drink specials. Coleburn said that restriction is a common request among restaurant owners. “The message that we got was that most restaurants don’t want to be able to advertise happy hour specials that they offer because they don’t want to get into a price war over who’s got the best happy hour specials.”

Yet ABC’s regulations are not solely designed to assuage business concerns. “The whole purpose of the system is to encourage temperance and discourage excessive consumption of alcohol,” Coleburn said.

It’s precisely that attitude that leads some Virginians to believe ABC regulations are conservative and outdated. Coleburn disagrees. “That’s really not true. In fact, our laws are in many ways more liberal than most,” he said.

For example, New York forbids bars and restaurants from offering drinks that are less than half-priced (in Virginia, restaurants may discount drinks at will). In Connecticut, it’s illegal for bartenders to serve more than one drink to a person at one time. Virginia caps it at two. And fans of discounted drinks should avoid North Carolina and Chicago, where happy hours are illegal.

“Virginia’s regulations are not particularly heavy-handed,” Coleburn said. They’ll be even lighter when happy hour advertisements become legal. The bar manager at Pasture looks forward to the change.

“Of course it helps,” said Jeff Farmer. He said that Pasture, like all Virginia restaurants, is limited to telling customers over the phone that the restaurant offers specials, but are legally unable to clarify that they are happy hour specials, which makes for vague and awkward conversations. The upcoming change in advertising regulations will make things easier. “I think it’s very beneficial for us and the consumer,” Farmer said. “I think it would be really nice, just like with any type of advertising.”

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  1. Here’s a summary of current happy hour regulations
  2. You can read the proposed change here (scroll down to the last entry). 
  3. Since 2010, restaurants have been available to advertise their happy hour times outside their premises on signs no larger than 17” x 22” containing only the words “happy hour” or “drink specials.” 

photo by Erin Soorenko

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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