It’s time to end Virginia’s prohibition on happy hour promotions

It’s easy to understand why restaurateurs and bar owners like hosting happy hour: The specials bring in more customer traffic at non-peak times, creating an opportunity to increase sales not only of alcoholic beverages but also appetizers and meals.

But it’s not always easy to understand the restrictions states and localities impose on happy hour specials. While many states place legal constraints on drink promotions, the rules in Virginia, which restrict how restaurants can advertise happy hour promotions, are among the more nonsensical in the nation.

Now, one Northern Virginia restaurant owner is fighting to challenge this unconstitutional violation of his free speech rights in court.

The Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Board places a number of restrictions on how a restaurant or bar can promote drink specials, often in ways that defy common sense. For instance, a bar owner is allowed to reduce the price of drinks by 50 percent, and he can say that the drink is “half-off.” But he’s not allowed to state the price as “two for one,” even though that’s mathematically equivalent. (“We understand that it can seem confusing,” the ABC helpfully admits on its website, a tacit recognition that the rules are poorly formulated).

Our restaurateur is also only allowed to advertise promotions using two approved (and rather generic) phrases: “happy hour” and “drink specials.” If he wants to offer discounted wine by the glass on a creatively titled “Wine Down Wednesday,” or use the popular phrase, “Turn Down for What Tuesday,” he’s breaking the law and subject to fines and penalties, including suspension of the establishment’s liquor license. Worse, he’s not allowed to advertise prices or discounts, rendering any happy hour advertisement essentially useless to consumers.

Local restaurateur Geoff Tracy, owner of Chef Geoff’s Tysons Corner and two other popular D.C.-area restaurants, has had enough. Represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, he’s challenging the Virginia ABC in court with the goal of having the state’s restrictions on happy hour advertising struck down.

Tracy rightly points out that the law is essentially a form of government censorship: “The fact that you can have a happy hour, but you can’t talk about it, seems strange,” Tracy says.

Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post