Welcome to What The Food?, a new column that explains why things are the way they are in Toronto’s dining scene. In this edition, we find out why bars in Ontario cannot use phrases like “happy hour” or “cheap drinks.”
To help boost sales during the lull between lunch and dinner service—or on traditionally slow days like Mondays or Tuesdays—restaurants and bars might offer drinks at lower prices to the after work-crowd, a.k.a happy hour. However, the process is far from straight forward.
In 1984, the provincial government banned the idea of happy hour altogether in an effort to reduce incidents (or at least perceptions of incidents) of drunk driving. Here’s a news segment on the ban from the CBC archives (rock that hair, customer Susan Wills!). It wasn’t until 2007 that the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario again allowed cheap after-work drinks for customers, but with a list of stipulations that have persisted to this day. They include:
• Liquor prices must be the same for all customers, meaning no student specials or ladies-drink-free business. In 2011 a revised set of guidelines specified that employees can give free drinks for specific reasons, like it’s a customer’s birthday, the patron is a friend or regular, or that it’s a way to settle a customer complaint. As long as they’re not handing out drinks willy-nilly like spring break, it’s cool.
• A standard-sized drink (e.g.: 12 oz beer, 1 oz spirits, 5 oz wine, or 3 oz fortified wine like brandy and port) cannot be sold for less than $2. This means the cheapest pint you can (legally) get in the province would be $2.67. Good luck finding that.
• You can’t offer drink discounts with the purchase of another drink. For example, two-for-one drink specials are prohibited.
• And, most notably, “the posting and advertising of prices and promotions must be responsible in nature.” This means the wording of drink specials cannot promote heavy boozing. The AGCO uses examples like “happy hour” and “cheap drinks” as being not allowed.
Believe it or not, the whole liquor advertising guideline is actually an interesting read, especially the part about how local booze-makers can’t imply that drinking will improve things like “athletic prowess; sexual prowess, opportunity or appeal; enjoyment of any activity.” This probably explains why the sexiest mascot among Ontario brewers is a cartoon-winged monkey.
Anyway, since happy hour is a forbidden phrase, restaurants and bars use alternative names to bypass the rules. Farmhouse Tavern has F*ck Mondays, Beast has Beast120, and The Gladstone Hotel had Crappy Hour, for example. There’s also buck-a-shuck, which puts the emphasis on the oysters rather than drinks and the Quebecois term cinq à sept, that’s more literal and elegant-sounding. (La Société uses it—super classy).
Farmhouse Tavern owner Darcy MacDonell says the F*ck Mondays name came from his previous life as an office jockey, and not so much as a way to avoid the happy-hour term. Still, does he think banning those words helps the cause?
“No. The general public uses the terms anyway and knows what it is,” MacDonell says. “Restaurateurs get AGCO newsletters every month or so, and I remember one where happy hour was the topic, so they’re pretty good at reminding us about these things.”
But, of course, there are still bars and restaurants that use the term happy hour—just look up “happy hour” on Twitter come 5 p.m. What happens in those cases?
AGCO spokesperson Jeff Keay says cases that violate the guidelines are dealt with on an individual basis. “If we become aware of a situation where the terms of a liquor licence are not being maintained, then we’d absolutely look into it,” he says. “Generally, our licensees are responsible partners in ensuring the product is served responsibly, safely, and in accordance with the rules.”
Sometimes, it’s an honest mistake that prompts a warning. Other times, if the place has a history of liquor-related violations, then the consequences are bigger, like a monetary fine up to $6,000 for encouraging over-drinking, or a suspended or revoked licence to serve alcohol. The AGCO has an Inspection and Investigation Branch that looks into places that might have violated the Liquor Licence Act.
And before you start throwing around (mostly justified) nanny-state accusations, it’s not just Ontario bars and restaurants that are subject to these regulations. Alberta also set minimum happy-hour prices and forbids selling lower-priced drinks after 8 p.m. States like Massachusetts and North Carolina have banned any kind of happy hour altogether.
In short: Regardless of the language used, bars and restaurants have the responsibility to not over-serve patrons, and customers should know their limits when it comes to drinking (and not get behind the wheel).—Karon Liu
What The Food? appears every other week. Wonder why something is the way it is in a Toronto restaurant? Email email@example.com.
Photo: Keith Beaty/Toronto Star