When Patrick Schultz opened Howling Wolf Taqueria in August 2010, he hoped to fill a Mexican culinary void in Salem.
It was the height of tourism season, and soon Schultz started to see diners come in — and see many of them turn right around and leave with nary a taste of the food.
What Schultz wasn’t counting on was the margarita factor. In this booming tourist destination, the only beverage license available to Schultz at the time was a seasonal beer and wine license, which prevented him from serving the margarita’s key ingredient, tequila.
“The original intention was to at least have beer, wine, and sangria because we knew it was difficult to get a full liquor license,” he said. “We had people turn around, even though we had a beer and wine license, because we couldn’t serve margaritas. I realized then how important a full liquor license was going to be.”
And as seasonal licenses go, Schultz had to stop serving alcohol altogether just five months after opening until a new season got underway on April 1, 2011. With Salem having long reached its state-imposed limit on full liquor licenses, many new serving establishments are limited to seeking April-to-January licenses. The city responded to the growing complaints by successfully petitioning the Legislature last year to allow for the conversion of some seasonal licenses to full-year permits through a fee system.
‘I can’t imagine a restaurant opening without a liquor license. I saw it as an economic development issue.’
Since then, Schultz converted his seasonal beer and wine license to full-year status and obtained a seasonal all-alcohol license, which means he can serve beer, wine and sangria year-round, and margaritas and all the rest from April 1 to Jan. 15.
“And of course, if a full liquor license that we can purchase comes on the market, we’ll pursue that too,” he said, “so we don’t have to worry about any of this stopping at some point ever again.”
Like Salem, several communities north of Boston have taken steps recently to ease restrictions surrounding the service of alcohol in dining establishments, all in the name of economic sustainability and development.
Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll said the city has evolved from a seasonal to an all-year tourist destination, and seasonal alcohol licenses make it harder to entice investors and developers.
“We’ve had countless people who inquire about the alcohol licenses,” Driscoll said. “For us, we have an extended season here; you want to serve alcohol with your dinner here all year long.”
The state’s system, administered by the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, sets a cap on the number of licenses in a community based on its population. For communities that have reached the cap, it can become difficult to compete to attract new establishments or expand development.
Through home rule petitions, local licensing authorities can ask the Legislature to grant them a certain number of licenses beyond their quota, but that can be time-consuming and is not guaranteed. Somerville officials have filed a home rule petition requesting that the state eliminate the city’s cap altogether.
At the last meeting of the Massachusetts Mayors’ Association, about a dozen mayors said they had reached their limit on alcohol licenses, said Driscoll, who is the group’s current president.
“We’ve identified this as an issue,” she said. “At the same time, you don’t want an unlimited cap. It’s a problem, but, like many problems in government, the solutions aren’t as easy.”
Haverhill Mayor James J. Fiorentini successfully petitioned the City Council in April to increase the number of alcohol licenses that city can dole out from 60 to 70. Haverhill is among 25 communities statewide, including Newburyport, with no state-imposed cap on on-premise licenses. The city sets its own cap, he said. Because Haverhill had reached its quota, it was creating a problem for would-be restaurateurs.
“I can’t imagine a restaurant opening without a liquor license,” Fiorentini said. “I saw it as an economic development issue.”
The license increase is good news for Maura Costello, who is getting ready to open Costello’s Restaurant on Merrimack Street in October. The Haverhill resident was forced to close Whistling Kettle, a breakfast and lunch restaurant she ran for 20 years in Amesbury, after the property changed hands. She wanted to start a new family restaurant in her hometown of Haverhill that would also offer dinner options. But she couldn’t have done that without a liquor license.
“Haverhill is a tremendous opportunity,” Costello said. “It’s positive to add more liquor licenses because it adds more restaurants to downtown.’’
Smart growth initiatives have made cities and towns north of Boston into dining destinations, further underscoring the connection between alcohol and economic development dollars, said Dennis DiZoglio, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, a regional agency serving 15 communities.
“There’s always been a feeling that if [communities] had more liquor licenses to go around for restaurants, particularly to attract more for their downtown areas, that they’d be more competitive,” DiZoglio said. “The whole smart growth of putting more density in a location, and mixed use — they want to have this sense of place, where not only can you live in the upper stories of these old mill buildings, you can go shopping downstairs. They’re self-contained communities, and having restaurants as part of that mix is a natural.”
A change in the identity of its downtown area is at the heart of a home rule petition filed by Medford officials asking to have the minimum seating requirement for a restaurant to qualify for a liquor license lowered from 99 to 50, said the city’s community development director, Lauren DiLorenzo.
“Medford has been underserved with small restaurants and quaint establishments, and people want . . . a vibrant downtown area,” DiLorenzo said. “It’s a great way to stimulate the small business development.”
Medford City Councilor Paul A. Camuso proposed the seating-requirement change nine years after the minimum was reduced from 250 to 99 seats.
“The whole point of me bringing this forward was economic development,” Camuso said. “Bigger properties that hold more seats have been occupied . . . I brought it forward to open it up so that more people say, ‘50 seats, I can put something in the H&R Block that just closed in Medford.’ A lot of these storefronts can fit 50, but not 99 seats.”
Even what may seem like mundane requests in a community’s master plan, such as sidewalk widening, tie into the larger economic stimulus picture, DiZoglio said. Wider sidewalks, walkways, and alleyways are increasingly being touted as extra outdoor seating space for potential and existing restaurants.
North Andover Town Meeting voters in June approved a zoning bylaw change that allows restaurant owners to add seasonal outdoor seating without the need to add new off-street parking spaces. Eateries with the proper permits may now serve food and alcohol al fresco, said the town’s Division of Community Development director, Curt Bellavance.
“Attitudes are changing a little bit more,” Bellavance said. “The blue laws are more relaxed and so they’re allowing these sort of incremental changes in Massachusetts, especially when we’re competing with other states, and us with New Hampshire being so close, it allows us to compete.”
Last summer, Andover selectmen reversed a policy banning the sale of alcohol to outdoor diners, a move that prompted the owners of Mediterranean restaurant Yella to apply for an outdoor dining permit, as well as a liquor license modification to be able to serve outside. Owners Carlo and Danielle Berdahn expect to add 20 seats outside, to complement their 36-seat dining room.
Being able to serve alcohol outdoors “is really important because it’s part of the whole dining experience. We do wine pairings that go with our food,” Danielle Berdahn said. “In New England we’re cooped up constantly in the winter, so to have those extra months outside is really important,’’ she said.
“I can’t think of anything more refreshing than sitting outside with lunch or dinner and drinking a moscato.”