Bizs face hurdles to liquor licenses

Jule Pattison-Gordon | 9/22/2016, 6 a.m.

In 2013, customers looking to sit down and savor glass of wine over dinner were hard-pressed to find options in areas of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, while local business owners were watching an opportunity pass them by. Together, these neighborhoods held 33 percent of the city’s population but just 7 percent of its liquor licenses. The costs of acquiring licenses were prohibitive, keeping them out of the hands of many restaurants lacking financial capital.

To level the playing field and bring costs of licenses back within the range of small businesses, City Councilor Ayanna Pressley pushed for release of a new batch of neighborhood-restricted, unsellable licenses granting restaurants the right to serve alcohol.

This is the final year of the program, which has distributed 50 licenses since 2014 — including full liquor and beer and wine only — and hearings began this month on application for the final 25.

New businesses and existing ones have taken advantage of the more affordable access to alcohol authorization — full-liquor licenses could go for $200,000 to $500,000 on the market in 2013; this new batch offers them for about $3,000.

“We’ve brought new restaurants online and existing restaurants have had business opportunities enhanced and bottom lines strengthened and improved,” Pressley said in a Banner phone interview. “We’re closer to eliminating disparity that has plagued the city when it comes to procurement and distribution of liquor licenses.”

Some restaurants may struggle to earn a profit without serving alcohol, Pressley said. And neighborhoods may suffer from this, as restaurants can act as community anchors and enliven streets, she said.

But as the license’s price barrier drops, other barriers emerge that are stopping some entrepreneurs from reaching the point of application. One striking indicator: over all three years, not one application has been submitted from Mattapan.

Would-be-restaurateurs face challenges to acquiring space and funding to set up and build out their establishment and in some areas, despite resident demand for dining-with-drinks options, businesses struggle to draw a sufficient customer base, Main Street District leaders said.

Neighborhood-restricted liquor licenses

The rollout of neighborhood-restricted licenses in 2014 marked the first new licenses in eight years.

The licenses being issued this year include 15 full-liquor licenses that may only go to an establishment in Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, Hyde Park, East Boston, Mission Hill, Jamaica Plain or a Main Streets District. Once sold, the license is locked to that neighborhood — for instance, if Tasty Burger leaves Dudley Square, its beer-and-wine license stays in Roxbury.

Unlike traditional licenses, which can be sold for profit by the owner, these return to the city for redistribution should the holder no longer need theirs.

Grove Hall’s space struggle

While residents of Grove Hall are interested in a sit-down restaurant with drinks, entrepreneurs struggle to get to the stage where they can sell food, before they can even think about scaling up to serve alcohol.

Grove Hall’s challenge lies in finding enough space for a restaurant at a cost that will not drive up prices untenably, Ed Gaskin, executive director of Grove Hall Main Streets, told the Banner. Most of the district’s storefronts are sized for retail — convertible to a take-out Chinese food venue or pizzeria but too small for tables with seating and a large kitchen, he said.