It’s hard to find a more antiquated and stubborn regulation in Boston than the state-imposed hard cap on restaurant liquor licenses — a vestige of a bygone time when Protestant state legislators feared that, if left to their own devices, Irish Catholic city leaders would flood the city with whiskey. Even now, what should be a local decision on liquor licensing is ultimately still controlled by the Legislature, which has shown little inclination to let Boston and the state’s other municipalities set their own rules. The ability to serve cocktails is key to most restaurants’ profitability, so the practical effect of limiting the number of licenses has been to limit the number of restaurants in the city.
That shortage has real consequences, depriving entrepreneurs of opportunities and neighborhoods of the vitality that can come from a corner watering hole or bustling bistro. And it’s the poorer neighborhoods of the city that suffer the most, since license-holders tend to migrate to parts of the city where they can maximize their profits. Out of the roughly 1,400 liquor licenses in the city, only 10 are in Mattapan, and just two of those are active restaurant liquor licenses. As Brian Worrell, the neighborhood’s city councilor, notes, “There are just six restaurants on Blue Hill Avenue with liquor licenses.”
The latest effort to change this status quo comes from Worrell and fellow city councilors Ruthzee Louijeune and Ricardo Arroyo. They’ve cosponsored a home rule petition for 200 new liquor licenses to be distributed in Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park, and Roxbury, and a 10 percent increase in the total number of liquor licenses in Boston over a 10-year period.
The councilors’ proposal is only the latest in a string of similar plans that have gone nowhere. Most recently, just as the pandemic was forcing many restaurants to fold, Councilor Lydia Edwards suggested a clever program where the city would buy licenses back from struggling establishments. But the window for that proposal may have already closed, given that Boston’s restaurant and hospitality industry has been on the rebound; buying back licenses in the current market would likely be too costly and, thus, an unwise fiscal move for the city. Former mayor Marty Walsh was pushing a plan for 180-plus new liquor licenses, some of which would have been exclusively for minority-owned businesses. Walsh had also proposed to create “umbrella licenses,” a new type of permit that would be available for large commercial or mixed-use developments to cover multiple restaurants without having an impact on the license cap.
The new proposal’s focus is on making the distribution of licenses more geographically equitable. “We’re trying to target small restaurants in the areas that have the lowest amount of restaurant liquor licenses,” said Worrell. These would not be traditional licenses: The 200 licenses would be nontransferable, which means that in the event of a restaurant’s closure the license would go back to the city. Furthermore, each license would be for an establishment with “a total capacity of 50 or under,” according to the petition.
Worrell seems to think there’s political appetite, not just from the mayor’s office but also from Beacon Hill, to approve the new targeted proposal. Yet it’s hard not to be cynical. The restaurant industry has almost always opposed, for one reason or another, any type of previous reform. One key reason is that restaurateurs fear that the value of existing, nonrestricted licenses will drop when new ones are created.
It always bears repeating that it’s not the state’s job to protect the value of a special-interest group’s speculative asset — which is what a transferable liquor license is. Regardless, Worrell notes that the new licenses wouldn’t compete with current ones, the vast majority of which can be sold and transferred to a new operator. “It’d be a new market, just as there is a different market for a two-bedroom condo and another one for a three-bedroom home,” he said.
Ultimately, it would be much more efficient and fair for the Legislature to allow Boston to determine and distribute its own liquor licenses. Restaurants that show they can responsibly serve alcohol should be allowed to do so.
In the meantime, Worrell, Louijeune, and Arroyo are on the right track with their proposal. Worrell said he’s “open for collaboration” and sounded eager to hear constructive feedback on the plan that would make it more amenable for all stakeholders. “At the end of the day, this is about getting tools into the hands of our small business owners,” he said.
Reforming liquor license law isn’t ultimately about booze. It’s about economic opportunity. Reform would offer neighborhoods like Mattapan — where 90 percent of residents identify as people of color — the chance to create a vibrant and thriving restaurant scene that produces local jobs, local revenue, and the kind of community institutions that residents of the South End or downtown take for granted.
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