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Restaurants: Proposed New Liquor Licenses “Slap in the Face” During Pandemic

This week’s Boston City Council hearing on adding 150 non-transferable liquor licenses for underserved neighborhoods became heated as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could put many existing alcohol licenses on the secondary market from many restaurants expected to go out of business.

With all Massachusetts restaurants and bars ordered closed for on-site service as of March 17th, the economic impact felt upon the industry has been brutal. Despite this, the Committee on Government Operations headed by Councilor Lydia Edwards continued with this week’s hearing to discuss a petition to discuss the additional liquor licenses.

The reasoning behind the petition sponsored by Councilor Frank Baker, in Docket #0281, is to increase beyond the State cap on liquor licenses using nontransferable licenses specifically geared toward neighborhoods with a disproportionately lower amount of licenses.

“… I apologize, because part of what I’m going to say is going to come across as a little angry…” said Bob Luz, CEO/President of the MRR (Massachusetts Restaurant Association), expressing deep disfavor on the issue of additional licenses, citing a “lack of respect, given everything that’s going on and expecting proprietors to take time away to testify. He called the hearing a “slap in the face to everyone trying to get through their day-to day”.

With over 300K people in the industry unemployed, Luz called for a complete pivot stating: “The responsible thing to do is to focus on how we’re going to save this industry.” State legislation designed to potentially restore revenue by permitting the sale of alcohol to-go is only in effect until the end of the shutdown.

Josh Weinstein, owner of East Boston Tavern The Quiet Few weighed in – admitting that he and several of his colleagues had found themselves unprepared and very much “in uncharted waters”. Offering a counterargument, Weinstein wondered whether new licenses might actually help establishments that are desperately trying to remain revenue-positive with the option of offering alcoholic beverages with takeout/delivery.

Chief John Barros reported in on what the Department of Economic Development is working regarding small business relief and recovery efforts, acknowledging that it’s still too soon to say what things will be like once the dust settles.

With the Department surveying small businesses every ten days, current data projects 75% of all surveyed small businesses lost at least 50% of their revenues while 46% of small businesses are shut. Unsurprisingly accommodation and food services industries have been hardest hit – representing the largest percentage of workers filing for unemployment.

As a way to get around the State cap, the 150 new licenses proposed are non-transferable and revert back to the City (i.e., cannot be sold, have no resell value). In contrast, normal beer and wine licenses can fetch $200,000 while all-alcohol licenses are worth over $400,000 in the secondary market, at least pre-pandemic.

As proposed, the licensing board would be able to grant 15 licenses to each of the following ten ‘underserved’ neighborhoods over a three-year period starting in 2021: Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, Hyde Park, Allston/Brighton, Roslindale, South Boston, West Roxbury, Charlestown and East Boston. Notably absent are the downtown neighborhoods including the North End / Waterfront, Beacon Hill, Back Bay, Downtown, Chinatown, Fenway, Kenmore and South End. In 2016, the licensing board rejected all-alcohol upgrades to North End establishments saying the neighborhood was “adequately served.

In 2014, the State made 75 nontransferable licenses available in Boston, mostly outside downtown. Mayor Marty Walsh, has argued to expand that number.

At the hearing, Councilor Baker agreed to amend the legislation by significantly reducing the number of nontransferable licenses. Chair Edwards also spoke in favor of the licenses as a way to help the industry rebound, especially in lower-income neighborhoods. A follow-on working session with public participation is planned.

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12 Replies to “Restaurants: Proposed New Liquor Licenses “Slap in the Face” During Pandemic

  1. How in the world is South Boston “undeserved” in regards to liquor licenses. Isn’t the Seaport South Boston?

  2. In the past, I have called for more liquor licenses to be added in the City of Boston. At that time, there was a real need for licenses, the market for them had skyrocketed due to lack of supply, and certain neighborhoods of the City were chronically underserved by restaurants. Over the last 8 years, many licenses have been added, most going to restaurants that have opened in underserved neighborhoods. Though I continue to support a modest increase to the number of licenses to keep pace with the rising population of Boston, I believe it is unfathomable that at a time when hundreds of Boston restaurants have closed, that the City Council is considering adding more right now. Those of us in the restaurant industry are in a fight for our lives. Further we are risking our lives every day to feed our community, to feed front line healthcare workers, and to offer employment to our employees, many who are not eligible for any governmental assistance. Restaurants are the hardest hit industry, unlike airlines and cruiselines, we have no corporate lobby to fight for a bailout and largely the relief currently available doesn’t help restaurants at all. So to read that the City Council is so deaf to our struggles, that they are debating the merits of adding more licenses is devastating. In the fall out to this crisis, many restaurants licenses will be for available because many restaurants will have closed permanently. There is no need to add more right now or in the foreseeable future.

    Mr. Weinstien’s argument that more restaurants should be given a liquor license so that in the next pandemic they can sell beer and wine to go, is preposterous. Those of us who fought for the right to sell our existing inventory of beer and wine did so because we didn’t want to see that product go to waste over the coming months. We have found since approval to sell it to-go passed, is that our delivery app partners have been slow to add it to their services (despite already delivering for liquor stores), that consumers expect those products to be offered well below what restaurants usually charge, forcing us into a race to the bottom with every discount liquor store in the area who have been offering delivery for years already. It should be noted that Mr. Weinstein is currently trying to secure a second free license from the city. His existing licensed premises, little more than a barroom, has closed during the pandemic, indicative of his commitment to his neighbors.

    The restauranteurs who have closed, who out of no fault of their own and don’t have the means to reopen, will need to liquidate their business. The equipment and furniture that they poured their lives savings into, will be worth close to nothing. The only asset they have that might have a market left is their liquor license. Given how many restaurants will be in a similar situation, they will be lucky to get what they originally paid for it. But its still their best shot on getting something for all the hardwork and capital they invested into their dream of opening a restaurant. Instead of discussing measures that will hurt small business people, or wrapping token relief measures in a poison pill of their political agenda, perhaps the City Council should consider ways to help, both those who are forced to close and those who are continuing their service to their employees, their customers and their communities. If they do not, and this poorly timed and poorly thought out legislation goes to the State House, I call on the Legislature to exhibit the common sense and not add to the misery so many in the restaurant industry are facing.

    1. The debate about more liquor licenses should be the last thing that is on the table. People are out of work,many businesses are closed and may never open again.Oh yeah I almost forgot, people are sick and dying from an invisible enemy that doesn’t discriminate.People have to risk their lives to go to a supermarket ,a grocery store and a pharmacy to get their medications. People are prisoners in their own home & apartments. Nursing homes & veterans homes where the people who are at the highest risk and most vulnerable are losing their lives & family & loved can’t even visit them. So spare me and save the liquor license debate for another day.

      1. Michael D, you are exactly right.
        We have our own nursing home in the neighborhood and the city pols should be releasing statements as to what is happening on Fulton St.

        Have the residents of the nursing home been tested? If not, will they? Have any workers of the nursing home tested positive? We don’t want what happened in Holyoke happening here.

    2. Part of why the Council is considering this is that many restaurants in other areas of the city, as in the North End, will need every chance possible to pay their bills post pandemic. The solution to helping the restaurant industry surely does not involve maintaining an unjustified $200- $400k hurdle for restaurants in less expensive neighborhoods.

      It is laudable that many are making every effort to maintain as many employees as possible. However, to respond to a point made, consider- why are so many of your “employees… not eligible for any governmental assistance.” Perhaps because even in good times, owners preferred paying off the books, skirting insurance, labor and tax laws? The government has largely ignored widespread labor law violations in the restaurant industry. That fact speaks volumes about restaurant political influence.

      have no idea who Weinstein is, but wonder, how on earth would a barroom maintain social distancing? The responsible action for such a place was to close during the crisis.

      The benefit of owning a liquor license is to sell booze during the license. As with any asset that helps earn money, there is no guarantee it can be sold at cost of purchase, nor should there be.

      Restaurants here didn’t mind the sudden addition of take out alcohol at the expense of local liquor and wine stores that typically would serve the takeaway crowd. Nor should they mind when businesses- essentially non competitors in other neighborhoods- get a lifeline.

  3. This conversations makes me sick to my stomach. Liquor Licenses. We have far too many restaurants & bars in this very small neighborhood to begin with, Did any of these restaurants think of sending the Nursing Home, MGH, or any Medical Facilities Food that might have to be
    thrown out before it goes bad? Where did all their money go when things were going good for them. Did anyone save for the Rainy Day? Well the Rainy Day is here & shame on you, if you didn’t. There are much greater issues than Liquor Licenses. Food for those that can’t leave their homes is a big issue.

    1. The new liquor licenses WILL NOT GO TO THE NORTH END OR SEAPORT OR BACK BAY OR BEACON HILL OR THE SOUTH END OR SOUTH BOSTON, They will go to neighborhoods like Mattapan and others who are not as economically successful as the North End. And they will be nontransferrable. That being said, the City Council’s timing sucks. They should revisit the issue after this disaster we are in right now is over. Shame on you for attacking the businesses in this neighborhood. None of us know what they are or are not doing to feed healthcare professionals or the elderly or other people who are facing food insecurity. As to food for those that cannot leave their homes. Try delivery services. It might take a few days but you can get food groceries ( but TP, Lysol, cleaning wipes are like gold and scare) delivered for $10 to $15. I have gotten food from Roche Bros delivery, Mercato.com and instacart. I am a senior and just started my FIFTH week of staying home.

      1. “The new liquor licenses WILL NOT GO TO THE NORTH END OR SEAPORT OR BACK BAY OR BEACON HILL OR THE SOUTH END OR SOUTH BOSTON, ”

        And you know this…how?

        The statement regarding under served neighborhoods states exactly the opposite of what you wrote. It literally state South Boston is “underserved”.

        1. Seriously, I am so happy you have stayed home all these weeks & have managed to survive this
          horrible virus, but don’t think for one minute all our Elderly have access to computers or
          smart phones. These things just don’t exist for all elderly. It sounds wonderful, but it is not
          happening. I still say, any restaurants who can’t hold on to the food & might have to dispose of it, could have donated to Medical Facilities & brought a little bit of happiness into their lives. Short & so Simple.

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