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City to make available new neighborhood-based liquor licenses for restaurants

Yawu Miller | 8/13/2014, 12:19 p.m.

Restaurateur Karen Henry-Garrett has nearly all the elements for success with her trendy Dot2Dot Cafe, which was voted Dorchester’s best restaurant in Boston Magazine.

But when the last of her lunch customers leaves, Henry-Garrett shuts the eatery down till the next day. Without a liquor license, Dot2Dot can hardly compete with other establishments on Dorchester Ave.

“A liquor license would make a great difference,” Henry-Garrett said.

While liquor licenses — which can sell for as much as $500,000 when available — have long been out-of-reach for many small startup restaurants, that will soon change as the first of the city’s new release of the licenses comes on board in September. The city will make available 25, with 20 reserved for neighborhood business districts like the Fields Corner/Ashmont area where Dot2Dot operates.

The new liquor licenses are part of an economic development bill passed by the Legislature that returns control of Boston’s Liquor Licensing Board to the city and increases the number of licenses available.

The city will release 25 new licenses a year for the next three years, with 60 of those licenses going to business districts in Dorchester, East Boston, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Mission Hill, and Roxbury and are not transferable. If a restaurant closes or is sold, the licenses, which the city will sell for $2000, return to the city.

City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who sponsored the city council ordinance for the new licenses, says her aim is to help breathe new life into struggling business districts.

“This is a game changer,” she said. “What I wanted to do is to address the contrast between neighborhoods that are saturated with liquor licenses and neighborhoods that are deserts.”

In the North End there are 99 liquor licenses. In Roxbury there are just 26, and 17 of those are for liquor stores. In Mattapan there are only nine.

Pressley says restaurants like Dot2Dot can serve as economic engines for neighborhood business districts if they remain open for dinner.

“Restaurants play an important role in building community and building wealth,” she said.

Most restaurants make only modest profits off the sale of food items. Selling wine and beer boosts restaurants’ profit margins and attracts more customers.

Henry-Garrett says she has tried to host dinner events, hosting art exhibits at Dot2Dot, but with limited success.

“It’s hard without a liquor license,” she said. “We don’t make money on these events. People want a glass of wine with their meals.”

Like Dot2Dot, many restaurants have expansion plans on hold, while waiting for the availability of a liquor license. The new licenses are expected to sell for just $2,000 each.

Dudley Square Main Streets Executive Director Joyce Stanley says restaurateurs are looking to site eateries or expand existing ones in the neighborhood, when the licenses become available, citing the Dudley Grill.

“They’re expanding,” she said. “They want to upgrade, and they want a liquor license.”

Pressley notes that the new liquor licenses will not go to liquor stores.

The new law marks the first time in more than 100 years that the city of Boston has had control over its own liquor licensing board. The return of the board to city control will allow the mayor and city councilors to better strategize how to use the licenses to promote economic activity in the city’s neighborhoods, according to Pressley.

“I think this law will ultimately result in greater transparency,” she said.