By: Ryan Malkin
Does the rulebook go out the window during a pandemic? As the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (“TTB”) and states weigh in via guidance and industry advisories, the resounding answer is no. Still, brands seek to support bartenders with, by and large, pure intentions. That is, brands have money and bartenders may not. Bartenders and brands establish important and long-term relationships over the course of, in some cases, decades. If your friend needed a meal, you’d certainly oblige. However, when the funds are coming from an upper tier (manufacturer, supplier, wholesaler) member’s pockets, we must consider whether and how funds can go towards trade. As a threshold matter, we should consider whether the bartender is employed or unemployed. If a bartender is unemployed, arguably that person is no longer considered a retailer within the meaning of the rules. If that’s the case, the rules with regards to how a brand may engage with that person may also go out the window.
By way of very brief background, it is unlawful to induce a retailer (an on-premise or off-premise licensee) to purchase your brand to the exclusion in whole or in part of another brand’s products. In particular, the federal and most state rules note that, subject to exceptions, “the act by an industry member of furnishing, giving, renting, lending, or selling any equipment, fixtures, signs, supplies, money, services, or other things of value to a retailer constitutes a means to induce within the meaning of the Act.” In short: unless there is an exception, you may consider the giving of any “thing of value” to be impermissible.
That means, but for exceptions, it is impermissible to acquire or hold any interest in a retail license, pay or credit a retailer for advertising, guarantee a loan to a retailer, require a retailer to purchase a certain amount of products, or provide any items that are not allowed under an exception. Those of us in the alcohol beverage industry may not realize it, but we largely play in the world of exceptions. The exceptions are where you find it permissible to offer point-of-sale materials, conduct tastings/samplings, provide displays, offer educational seminars to retailers, and stock/rotate your products.
Federally and in many, though not all, states the providing of the “thing of value” must also lead to exclusion. Exclusion is when the practice “puts the retailer’s independence at risk.” To determine that, the TTB will look at the practice and consider, among other things, whether it required an obligation on the part of the retailer to purchase or promote the brand, and whether it resulted in discrimination among retailers. That means the brand did not offer the same thing to all retailers in the area on the same terms without business reasons for the difference in treatment.
Now that we’re on the same page with regards to the rules, we want to consider whether the person we want to assist is employed by a retailer or unemployed. If the person is employed by retailer (remember that means on-premise or off-premise), the brand will be more limited in how it may engage with that person. In short, follow the pre COVID-19 rules. TTB’s recent guidance on this topic specifically states that “the furnishing of business meals or entertainment to a trade buyer is an inducement under the Act” if the inducement results in the full or partial exclusion of products sold by that brand in the course of interstate or foreign commerce. In other words, according to TTB, “the furnishing of business meals or entertainment to a trade buyer is not by itself a violation of the Act.” In fact, providing retailer entertainment is quite common and many states have specific regulations that permit the practice.
Typical states rules will require that the brand’s representative be present, that the entertainment be reasonable, and not conditioned on the purchase or agreement to purchase any of the brand’s products. Retailer entertainment rules are how you often see brand’s take bartenders and liquor store owners to ballgames, concerts and dinner.
Given the social distancing rules, it is impractical and unsafe to get together with working trade. Instead of going to dinner and discussing business, it may be worth considering whether a brand feels comfortable doing so online via, say, Zoom or FaceTime. The brand can send drinks and a meal to the bartender. When the food and drinks arrive, the brand and the bartender can hop online and eat together. The brand representative would be as present as one can reasonably during this time. Of course, the brand should analyze this against the rules in the applicable state(s) and with its own attorney.
However, if the bartender is no longer employed, one should now consider him or her as just a regular consumer, albeit with above average mixology skills. Now the brand may feel comfortable entering into an agreement with the person to be a brand consultant to perform any number of services. For instance, to create how-to cocktail videos or conduct virtual tastings. The brand would then pay that person whatever the two agree as reasonable. The brand should consider putting an agreement in place with that out-of-work bartender. The agreement should include basic provisions, perhaps paying particular attention to intellectual property (we own it, you’re using it with our permission and we own what you create) and representations around the unemployed bartender’s status. This compliance section should require the person being hired to acknowledge that he or she does not have any direct, or indirect, ownership in any retailer, and, at minimum, that the fee being paid is not conditioned on or being used to induce any retailer to purchase the brand’s products to the exclusion of any competitive products.
Now that you have a solution for supporting both employed, though perhaps struggling, bartenders and those out-of-work, go out there and keep your brand alive and relevant during these unprecedented times. Be careful out there.
Ryan Malkin is principal attorney at Malkin Law P.A., a law firm serving the alcohol beverage industry. Nothing in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as specific legal advice.
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