Massachusetts: Does Boston Need More Alcohol Licenses?

Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley calls for examination of alcohol licenses and how attaining them economically affect businesses.

By David Ertischek June 16, 2012
The Patch
There is a cap on how many alcohol licenses are allowed in Boston, and sometimes restaurants wait months for a license to become available. Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley feels the system is antiquated, and hurts the economic viability of Boston's main streets.

"I'm not talking about turning main streets into Bourbon Street. I'm talking about fostering small local environments for a nice glass of wine to celebrate a birthday or a graduation. We need libraries and supermarkets, but we also need quality places for people to socialize in all neighborhoods," said Pressley, who wants to lift the cap on alcohol licenses permitted in the city.

There are several types of alcohol licenses, including one-day special licenses, but Pressley's gaze is upon the prized seven-day alcohol licenses. There are two ways to get a license: apply for license through the state's Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, and Boston's Licensing Board; or buy one from an existing holder.

Hunting for licenses

Liquor licenses are so scarce, restaurateurs hire firms to locate licenses and navigate the selling process from one business to another. A beer and wine license can go from $10,000 to $50,000, while a full alcohol all-inclusive license can go for upwards of $500,000.

Restaurateur Joe Greene, who co-own's several restaurants including the The Paramount, The Paramount 2 (in South Boston), The 21st Amendment, West on Centre, and the Blarney Stone, spoke about buying alcohol licenses. Greene said he has always opened new restaurants at locations that had alcohol licenses, so he bought the lease and the license.

"At this point the liquor license cost area is about $250,000," said Greene. "If you spend that money and then they start giving them out, it wouldn't be good form in my point-of-view. It's tough to buy a license, but then it has value. It's part of the investment... It's just the way it works."

Greene said it's tough to transfer a license from one area to another, especially when you need to go in front of neighborhood boards, and deal with possible zoning issues.

Buying a license

Eric Battite, who owns The Real Deal delis in West Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, opened Sugar Baking Co. in Roslindale Village last year, but it took him more than half a year to get a beer and wine license for the restaurant. Battite said he first applied for a license in May 2011, and got one in February 2012. (The restaurant just started serving dinner this week, but not because they didn't have a liquor license, said Battite.)

Battite said a metro Boston business offered him a beer and wine license for $40,000.

"Word on the street is you can negotiate between $15,000 to $20,000 and not go through the system. You can purchase them, but I didn't want to negotiate a pay for that much. I thought I would get my license a lot quicker when I applied, but it really took six to seven months."

Battite said the Sugar Baking Co.'s beer and wine license cost him about $7,000, with most of it going to legal fees.

But things may be changing underfoot without very little notice. Battite said his beer and wine license ends with him and can't be transferred.

He added no one knows when alcohol licenses are going to become available. While numbers change regularly, there are about 1,030 total alcohol licenses in Boston, with 675 for full liquor service, and 335 for beer and wine.

Barriers to change

State law mandates there is a cap on the amount of alcohol licenses in Boston, so a home rule petition would need to be filed and passed for changes to occur.

The order was referred to the Council's Committee on Economic Development and Planning for a future hearing. Restaurant owners and firms that help procure alcohol licenses are expected to testify.

"I'm not vilifying firms that support small inspiring business owners to go around this maze. It's a problem we have to do that," said Pressley. "Not everyone will have the resources to do that. I want to pull back the curtains on the process to peak."