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How Much Has Legalized Happy Hour Helped Chicago Restaurants and Bars?

An examination of its effects on the industry after one year

The Izakaya at Momotaro is a venue that takes advantage of happy hour.
The Izakaya at Momotaro is a venue that takes advantage of happy hour.
Marc Much
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

A year after state lawmakers made happy hour legal in Illinois, legislators and lobby groups say the law has boosted sales and presents a shining example of local politicians helping businesses. Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the bill into law last July, bringing back happy hour after 26 years, and also mandating staff Basset alcohol training.

"Obviously, we think it’s been an overwhelming positive," said Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association.

The co-author of The Culinary and Hospitality Modernization Act, State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, stands behind numbers from the Hospitality Business Association of Chicago. Illinois liquor tax collections rose about 3.6 percent, to $93.6 million over the first four months of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015. Not all of that can be attributed to happy hour, but Feigenholtz is happy.

"It’s made a remarkable difference amongst the spirit of the bar and restaurant owners in the city," she said. "Our phones stopped ringing [with complaints]."

Complaints came from confused restaurant owners who were being fined. Toia pointed to New Year’s Eve dinner packages which come with champagne toasts. Under the old law, those packages weren’t legal and subject to fines as large as $2,500. Springfield lawmakers banned happy hour in 1989 after a few high-profile DUI-related fatalities and competition between bar owners who tried to offer patrons the cheapest specials possible.

Whirlyball’s vice president of strategic planning, Adam Elias, said patrons were coming in after work for informal happy hours —without specials— for years. They use happy hour to show customers to aspects of their venue they may not know about, such as a rooftop terrace. Offering unique items at an "aggressive price point" is nice, but not essential: "I don’t think happy hour is something that will make or break a city or venue," Elias said. "I just think it’s a nice enhancement if it’s available."

Piece Pizza owner Bill Jacobs championed the happy hour opposition last year. Piece still won’t offer happy hour specials. Jacobs declined comment, saying he tried to raise awareness about the law’s negatives and he doesn’t have much to add. Happy hour participation is a choice for restaurants and home-rule municipalities. For example, suburban Downers Grove approved happy hours this week.

Toia pointed out that there haven’t been any DUI-related fatalities linked to happy hour over the last year —at least none reported by the local media. It’s hard to track, as it wouldn’t be a priority by police to make that connection in their accident reports.

Feigenholtz’s Lakeview office sits a few doors from the former-Leona’s restaurant Toia once co-owned. She worked on the law with industry experts and lobbyists from groups like the Associated Beer Distributors of Illinois, which appear as conflicts of interest. Feigenholtz said she didn’t feel the law greatly affected ABDI as the law focused on business owners: "I just know that some of our business owners lose a lot of customers because of competition."

Boka Restaurant Group ensures they tie in a food component to their happy hour specials, said their VP Ian Goldberg. They’ve focused on offering specials at spots like Cold Storage and the Izakaya at Momotaro with a lively bar component. Some customers have tried to exploit the specials, and that provided teaching moments: "You have to be very specific with what you’re offering," Goldberg said. "We added a clause that says the specials are good while items are still available."

As for the future, Toia said he doesn't think the happy hour law needs tweaks or that lawmakers should allow restaurants to offer more specials. "We crafted a very good bill," he says.


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