By Caitlin Morris
Capital News Service
RICHMOND - Virginia bar patrons might soon see a slew of new advertisements from their favorite hangouts — ads that include prices for happy hour specials.
Legislation moving through this year’s General Assembly would allow restaurants and bars to include drink prices in their happy hour advertisements.
Currently, restaurants and bars can advertise in a number of ways that they have a happy hour — such as posters, social media and websites — but they can’t advertise the drink prices outside their buildings. The ads can convey only the time of the special and the type of drink or brand being offered. The current law applies even to a recorded answering machine message.
The House of Delegates this week joined the Senate in passing legislation to loosen the rules. The House voted 94-2 in favor of SB 1726, which was approved unanimously by the Senate in January. The bill now goes to the governor to be signed into law.
The legislation would now permit happy hour ads to include the prices of drink specials and other creative marketing techniques “provided that such techniques do not tend to induce overconsumption or consumption by minors.”
In 2018, restaurant owner and chef Geoff Tracy sued the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, saying the current law violated the First Amendment. Tracy contended that the restrictions on happy hour advertisements infringed on his right to free speech, making them unconstitutional — and hurting his business in Northern Virginia.
Tracy also owns restaurants in Maryland and Washington, D.C., where he faces no such restrictions.
“Virginia has some antiquated ideas about what people should be allowed to do socially,” said Darin Pilger, the general manager of Bandito’s Burrito Lounge in Richmond.
Bar patrons might be surprised by the number of laws restricting drink specials. For example, two-for-one drink specials are illegal and happy hour is forbidden from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Promotions for discounts are limited to being called “happy hour” or “drink specials” — there’s no room for “margarita Mondays” under current law. Businesses that don’t comply could face suspended or revoked liquor licenses.
“You put up with all the laws, and you honor them, but you’re always just shaking your head,” Pilger said.