For the first time, Virginia pubs and restaurants may soon be able to plug their Margarita Mondays, Wine-down Wednesdays, and $5 Fiesta Fridays.
The Virginia state legislature gave initial approval Wednesday to House and Senate bills diluting the state’s tight laws on advertising happy-hour prices and catchy slogans, stepping up after a legal challenge filed by a popular local restaurateur.
Chef Geoff Tracy, who operates eateries in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., filed a lawsuit last year against the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Board wash away the old-fashioned advertising restrictions on First Amendment grounds.
“If these are signed into law it will be huge for my business,” said Mr. Tracy in a statement. “Now I can actually have some fun in advertising my happy hours, and I can tell people the price of happy-hour pinot before they get to my restaurant.”
Anastasia Boden, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented Mr. Tracy free of charge, said the board actually loosened up its rules in 2014 to allow pubs to promote their drink specials online, instead of only within establishment doors.
The board still prevented restaurant owners from advertising anything other than “happy hour” or “drink specials,” she said.
“You cannot advertise Happy Hour prices or puns,” said Ms. Boden. “The way that it is phrased, you can’t use creative terms. So you can’t have any synonyms for ‘happy hour.’ You can’t have Wednesday Wine-Down or Sunday Funday. None of these fun terms people use nowadays. Creativity is strictly verboten.”
The original restrictions, which dated back to 1934, banned any advertising of happy hours in the Commonwealth, which Mr. Tracy found hard to swallow.
“Our client did this because he’s well known in the D.C. area for being a fun guy, popular on social media, and he likes to express himself creatively,” said Ms. Boden. “He thinks it’s a way to bring customers to his business. He actually likes to advertise uniformly, so this impacts his ability to advertise in other states, because he can’t say the same thing in both places.”
Mr. Tracy runs Chef Geoff’s in Washington, D.C., and Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, as well as Lia’s in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Happy hour is his specialty: His Maryland establishment calls itself as “the best happy hour in Chevy Chase,” while the Chef Geoff’s on New Mexico Avenue in Northwest is billed as “the best happy hour in Washington, D.C.”
The legislation allows liquor licensees to “advertise on or off the licensed premises and to advertise the prices of featured alcoholic beverages,” according to the legislative analysis, as well as “creative advertising marketing techniques, provided that such techniques do not induce overconsumption or induce consumption by minors.”
The identical bills breezed through their initial votes, with a 90-4 vote in the House and 40-0 in the Senate. The measures must still be read and voted on in the other chambers before going to Gov. Ralph Northam.