Today is a momentous day for the U.S. restaurant industry. On December 5, 1933, Prohibition was repealed. That marked 14 years of illegal manufacture, distribution, sales and consumption of alcoholic beverages and a law that was literally impossible to enforce because the majority of American’s were not in favor of the mandate. That day in 1933 really marked the beginning of the restaurant industry in the U.S.
Granted there were restaurants before Prohibition and there were restaurants during Prohibition, but the scope of the industry to come, the connection that restaurants would have with the American people, and the role that restaurants would play in our lives had it’s first real spark as a result of Prohibition’s repeal.
Think about some statistics first before I explain why I believe that repeal was the watershed moment for restaurants. The alcoholic beverage industry in the U.S. generated over $400 billion in sales in 2010, There are 60,000 free standing bars in the U.S. (not including restaurants that serve alcohol or retail stores that sell directly to consumers), There are well over 600,000 restaurants in America, a majority of which sell alcohol; 340,000 of those restaurants are independently operated; in 2012 Americans visited restaurants 60 billion times; the industry as a whole employs 13 million people which is about 10% of the U.S. workforce and places the industry as the second largest employer within our borders. How much of this would have been possible without the legal production, distribution, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages?
Now, some will refer to the negatives associated with alcohol: it’s potential addictive nature, the impact it may have on the psychological state of some, it’s contribution to crime, the impact of drunk driving, and the debilitating impact it has on so many who have become physically and emotionally dependent on the beverage. I cannot disagree with any of these facts and it is not my position to defend or criticize, however those who are able to drink in moderation, use an occasional alcoholic drink as part of socialization with friends (without using alcohol to make you social), and never get behind the wheel of a car with more than one drink under your belt, then alcohol certainly has its place.
Now, back to why the Repeal of Prohibition was the start of the restaurant business in the U.S.: my grandfather owned a speakeasy (he was also a local town supervisor which helped when the revenuers came to town). From family lore, I have discovered much of how this environment worked. He bought his liquor from Canada and in some cases even made some of his own “bathtub gin”. He was fortunate in that his was the only speakeasy in town so there was no competition like in larger cities. In order to keep his patrons happily drinking for periods of time it became necessary to serve some type of food, so he began offering sandwiches and soup. This was the case with nearly all speakeasy operations across the U.S. As a result, this illegal bar was where people went to socialize, discuss the issues of the day, and nourish themselves.
When Prohibition was repealed, the speakeasy, in order to maintain their business and a competitive edge, had to increase their menu offerings and create additional reasons for guests to continue their tradition of socialization in the operation. From the foundations of the speakeasy rose the modern restaurant where now the food would take center stage and alcohol would solidify the partnership with guests.
The restaurants and bars of America have a social, historical, moral and ethical responsibility to serve alcohol with care, respect the importance of the beverage and how it marries with food and on December 5th each year give thanks for the wisdom that was shown when an illegally produced beverage became a legal one for better or for worse.
*The historical photo is of a bar on June 30, 1919 – the day before Prohibition went into effect. It is part of the archives of the Library of Congress.