NYC businesses brace for new soda size rule


NEW YORK –  At barbecue joints, coffee  counters and bottle-service nightclubs, a coming clampdown on big, sugary soft  drinks is beginning to take shape on tables and menus in a city that thrives on  eating and going out.

Some restaurants are ordering smaller glasses. Dunkin’ Donuts shops are  telling customers they’ll have to sweeten and flavor their own coffee. Coca-Cola  has printed posters explaining the new rules, and a bowling lounge is squeezing  carrot and beet juice as a potential substitute for pitchers of soda at family  parties — all in preparation for the nation’s first limit on the size of  sugar-laden beverages, set to take effect Tuesday.

Some businesses are holding off, hoping a court challenge nixes or at least  delays the restriction. But many are getting ready for tasks including  reprinting menus and changing movie theaters’ supersized soda-and-popcorn  deals.

At Brother Jimmy’s BBQ, customers still will be able to order margaritas by  the pitcher, cocktails in jumbo Mason jars and heaping plates of ribs. But  they’ll no longer get 24-ounce tumblers of soda, since the new rule bars selling  non-diet cola in cups, bottles or pitchers bigger than 16 ounces.

“Everything we do is big, so serving it in a quaint little 16-ounce soda cups  is going to look kind of odd,” owner Josh Lebowitz said. Nonetheless, he’s  ordered 1,000 of them for the North Carolina-themed restaurant’s five Manhattan  locations, rather than take on a fight that carries the threat of $200  fines.

“As long as they keep allowing us to serve beer in glasses larger than 16  ounces, we’ll be OK,” Lebowitz reasoned.

Beer drinkers can breathe easy: The restriction doesn’t apply to alcoholic  beverages, among other exemptions for various reasons. But it does cover such  beverages as energy drinks and sweetened fruit smoothies.

City officials say it’s a pioneering, practical step to staunch an obesity  rate that has risen from 18 to 24 percent in a decade among adult New Yorkers.  Health officials say sugar-filled drinks bear much of the blame because they  carry hundreds of calories — a 32-ounce soda has more than a typical fast-food  cheeseburger — without making people feel full.

The city “has the ability to do this and the obligation to try to help,” the  plan’s chief cheerleader, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said last month.

Critics say the regulation won’t make a meaningful difference in diets but  will unfairly hurt some businesses while sparing others. A customer who can’t  get a 20-ounce Coke at a sandwich shop could still buy a Big Gulp at a 7-Eleven,  for instance, since many convenience stores and supermarkets are beyond the  city’s regulatory reach.

New Yorkers are divided on the restriction. A Quinnipiac University poll  released last week found 51 percent opposed it, while 46 percent approved.

“I don’t know if the state should be our surrogate parent,” Peter Sarfaty,  71, said as he drank a diet cola with lunch in Manhattan this week. “You get the  information out there, but to tell people what they can or can’t do? As if it’s  going to stop them.”

Business organization ranging from the massive American Beverage Association  to a local Korean-American grocers’ group have asked a judge to stop the size  limit from taking effect until he decides on their bid to block it altogether.  He hasn’t ruled on either request.

Many businesses aren’t taking chances in the meantime.

Dominic Fazio, the manager of a Penn Station pizzeria, has stopped ordering  32-ounce and 24-ounce cups, though he calls the regulation “ridiculous.”

“But I guess the law is the law, right?” said Fazio, who put up an  explanatory sign Coca-Cola Co. provided. The Atlanta-based soda giant said in a  statement that helping small businesses prepare was “the responsible thing to  do.”

Managers at rapper Jay-Z’s 40-40 Club were busy this week making sure they  wouldn’t get in hot water over carafes of soda and other sweet mixers that  accompany bottle service, spokeswoman Lauren Menache said. The carafes are  slightly bigger than 16 ounces; city lawyers have indicated such containers  should pass muster.

Dunkin’ Donuts shops, meanwhile, have set out colorful fliers explaining the  complex rules surrounding coffee.

Lots of lattes are exempt because they’re more than half milk. And it’s OK  for customers to load their large and extra-large coffees with all the sugar or  sweet flavoring they want. But the chain will no longer do it for them, for fear  of running over the limit of roughly three calories per ounce.

Starbucks, meanwhile, believes most of its products won’t be affected and  isn’t making any immediate changes, spokeswoman Linda Mills said.

Even some businesses that specialize in big sodas aren’t making moves — yet  — in light of the lawsuit and the city’s pledge not to impose fines until June.  Until then, violations would just spur a notice.

At Dallas BBQ, “Texas-size” 20-ounce sodas are staying for now, said Eric  Levine, one of the directors.

Switching to 16 ounces would mean ordering roughly 10,000 new glasses for the  New York-based company’s 10 locations, including a Times Square spot that seats  1,000 people. And customers wouldn’t feel they were getting the same deal:  double the soda for little more than the price of the 10-ounce size, Levine  said.

The rule’s effects may be particularly pronounced at movie theaters, where  belly-buster sodas are as familiar as coming attractions. Big beverages also  account for about 10 percent of profits, according to court papers.

“People just like that comfort, while they’re sitting there — to make sure  they have enough to drink for the whole movie,” Russell Levinson, the general  manager of Movieworld, mused this week.

The family-owned theater sells soda in 20-ounce bottles and 44-, 32-, 22-,  and 12-ounce cups. The theater is looking at getting 16-ounce cups, considering  two-drink and refill specials and retooling all its drink-and-popcorn  combination offers, Levinson said.

Some businesses, though, are adapting to the new rule with gusto.

At Frames Bowling Lounge, a Manhattan spot that mixes bowling with an upscale  bar, the families who pack the lanes on weekend days will no longer be offered  pitchers of soda as part of a party package, executive general manager Ayman  Kamel said.

Instead, they can get individual, eight-ounce cups of soda — or pitchers of  the low-sugar, house-made juices that he and staffers spent an afternoon tasting  this week. They experimented with such options as carrot, beet and  mint-and-citrus.

“It’s going to cost a little bit more money, but nothing is more valuable  than having freshly squeezed juice available for our clients,” he said. “We’re  taking advantage of the situation to promote the good side — healthy  options.”

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