As St. Patrick's Day approaches, bar owners might be surprised at the deals they can offer...

With St. Patrick's Day around the corner, it's worth noting that Pennsylvania's bars, nightclubs and restaurants in the past two years have been given more leeway when it comes to promotions.

Despite the wider latitude granted under what's known as Act 11, many establishments fail to take advantage of their increased marketing ability, says attorney Frank C. Sluzis, who focuses on Pennsylvania liquor license issues at Scaringi Law

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board hasn't been in a rush to promote the new options, which include expanded happy-hour durations and enriched options for drink pricing specials.

With the bar-business-boosting holiday of St. Patrick's Day coming up, Sluzis says it's worth taking a close look at some of the promotional tools made legal under Act 11.

Used effectively and intelligently, these tools can help build business while keeping the licensed premises in compliance with the PLCB and safeguarding the establishment owner's valuable liquor license.

Happy hour isn't just a few hours anymore

In the bar business, there are few better ways to attract new customers and to reward regulars than a robust and regular happy hour.

Perhaps in recognition of this, Act 11 expanded the boundaries of happy hour, doubling the daily happy-hour limit from two hours to four and letting establishments have a weekly happy-hour total of 14 hours.

"Happy hour was only two straight hours per day, where you were able to discount all of your alcoholic beverages," explains Sluzis. "Act 11 changed that. But a lot of people don't know the change. You can have it up to four hours per day and up to 14 hours per week."

What didn't change is that none of the promotional or discounting policies under Act 11 can occur during the licensed establishment witching hours of midnight to 2 a.m., Sluzis says.

How to offer a square deal for St. Paddy's Day corned beef platters

Truth be told, St. Patrick's Day isn't just a drinking holiday. It's an eating occasion as well, and many a bar rolls out specials on corned beef and cabbage and other popular treats.

Under Act 11, there's new legal leeway to pair these meal specials with drinks.

Bars can offer one-price meal and drink deals, as long as the drink prices aren't discounted as part of the package, Sluzis says.

This means bar and restaurant owners must calculate the regular cost of the drinks included in the deal and then not serve any patron more than the number of included drinks as part of the offer. Customers who want additional drinks have to pay for them separately.

"Say it's $14 for the corned beef and cabbage and the green beer drink special," Sluzis says. "If your draft is $1, you have to anticipate that price in the meal and how many drinks are included. What you can't do is discount the price of the drinks."

But licensed establishments can always give away one free drink as part of a meal deal, Sluzis says.

Pennsylvania law always has given establishment owners the leeway to offer each customer one free drink per day. Including this freebee in a St. Patrick's Day meal special makes good use of this promotional tool.

Catered events offer tools to take it up a notch

Under Act 11, bars and restaurants can host catered events, where one price can score a customer drinks, dining and entertainment - a perfect fit for St. Patrick's Day and other occasions.

But there is some fine print, Sluzis warns.

First, the catered event must be organized at least a day in advance by a third party. The third party can be the bar's manager or an employee - just not the licensed owner.

Second, only those customers paying the fixed price for the catered event can take part in the drinking at the event. So it is best to sell tickets, in advance or at the door, and keep records and estimates for attendance and overall consumption.

"You can serve an unlimited amount of alcoholic beverages at a fixed price at a catered event," Sluzis says. "As long as the event arrangements are made at least 24 hours (in advance), not by the restaurant licensee, but by a third party. As long as there are records, you are in good shape."

Though establishments with extended food permits, such as all-night eateries, still have to stop serving alcohol by 2 a.m., they are free to continue their entertainment long past usual closing times.

"You can allow live entertainment during those hours," Sluzis points out, regarding extended food permit establishments. "The alcoholic drinks need to stop, but the party doesn't have to stop. You can continue the entertainment. I tell people that, and they are surprised."

The law also allows establishments to offer one daily drink special in addition to any happy hour or other promotion. These drink specials can run until midnight, when full price for all alcohol must apply. For St. Patrick's Day, most bars won't go wrong when cutting the price on a pint of Guinness.

The balancing act

Act 11 offers licensed bar and restaurant owners a full menu of promotional tools, especially on traditional party holidays such as St. Patrick's Day. But that boost in business can come with a cost. More patrons consuming more alcohol can mean more problems.

Sluzis calls this the "bar owner's balancing act.'' When doing more to increase business, bar owners must be prepared with more security, more staff and increased vigilance.

"It is a balancing act that the licensee has to determine," he says. "You have one bad experience, and you may not want to do anything anymore."

Sluzis says he knows of many licensed establishments that have all but given up on promotions centered around New Year's Eve because of the liability headaches. Many places opt to close long before the ball drops and the problems mount.

Though a holiday can offer an opportunity for increased business through various promotions, as with all aspects of serving alcohol, establishments must act responsibly and take precautions.

"A license is a valuable thing," Sluzis says. "Why put it in jeopardy for one day?"

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