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Globe Magazine

Boston restaurant economics are punishing. $600,000 liquor licenses make it worse.

A shortage of licenses makes for a system stacked against small businesses and Black entrepreneurs. Can it be fixed?

Rufus Faulk, Jarvis Adams, and Levi Samedi, co-owners of the Mix restaurant, slated to open this spring.Jared Charney/for the Boston Globe

Jarvis Adams, the Lobzter King, got his start grilling for his friends — lobsters rubbed with olive oil and his secret signature seasonings. They were a hit, and that gave him an idea: I could do this for real. So two years ago, he started doing pop-ups at Boston-area breweries and distilleries, then temporary kitchen takeovers at friendly restaurants, then catering for DraftKings. Now, he’s going all in on his first brick-and-mortar restaurant.

On a recent Saturday, Adams and his business partners, Levi Samedi and Rufus Faulk, are sitting inside a restaurant space they’ve leased, the former Ashmont Grill in Dorchester. Friends since their teenage years in Boston, they’re dads in their early 40s, all wearing weekend-casual hoodies — Adams’s sports his company logo. He grew up here, and went to the old Woodrow Wilson Middle School a few blocks away. “I’ve walked past here 100 times or more in my life, from being a teenager all the way up until now,” he says.

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The Lobzter King and his friends are planning a menu for a restaurant they’re calling The Mix: “Other than just lobster,” Adams says, “it might be lobster and lamb chops. It might be lobster and steak. It might be catfish and grits. We are going to start doing brunches with chicken and waffles.” They’re planning to bring in new furniture, 120 seats inside and another 40 to 60 seats on two outdoor patios. They’re aiming for a spring opening, and everything is on track — with one big exception: a liquor license.

That’s central to The Mix’s business plan, Faulk says. They want to hire a mixologist “so we can offer new and innovative drinks and beverages, recognizing that we want to attract a professional crowd.” But getting a liquor license is incredibly difficult in Boston — unless you happen to have a half-million dollars to spend.

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Thanks to a 91-year-old state law, Boston has been at or near its quota of full liquor licenses — currently around 820 — for many years. So for restaurants and bars looking to open in the city, existing licenses sell in a private market that set new price records in 2023, when sales ranged from about $400,000 to $600,000. (The city also has around 390 limited licenses, such as for beer and wine only, which go for $100,000 to $180,000 or so on the private market, for a total of roughly 1,200 licenses for restaurants and bars.)

Most liquor licenses are fully transferable anywhere in the city. After the Ashmont Grill closed last February, its license didn’t stay with the building, or even in the neighborhood. It was sold in July 2023 to the Cactus Club Café, a chain with more than 30 restaurants in Canada that is opening its first Boston location, on Boylston Street in the Back Bay. The sale price for the license: $555,000.

Adams, Samedi, and Faulk can’t afford that. Adams drove an oil company truck before he became the Lobzter King. Faulk, who is now a consultant, is a former senior policy adviser on public safety to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. Samedi is a real estate developer and investor who has focused on houses until now. “We don’t have outside investors,” Faulk says. “This is these three guys from the neighborhood, trying to bring another neighborhood restaurant to the city.”

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In the punishing economics of the full-service restaurant business — where food and labor costs are higher than ever, and profit margins average just 5 percent, according to the National Restaurant Association — high-margin liquor sales can be a lifeline. Still, the association finds, 6 in 10 restaurants fail in the first year, and 8 in 10 close by year five.

When a neighborhood restaurant shuts down in Boston these days, its liquor license usually gets sold across town — and they tend to migrate to where the money is. The highest bidders are often deep-pocketed corporations and chains aiming to open a restaurant, bar, or hotel in wealthier parts of the city: downtown, the Back Bay, the Seaport — high-traffic spots flooded with suburbanites and tourists looking for a night on the town. Neighborhood entrepreneurs can’t compete.

Inside The Mix, which will be located inside the former Ashmont Grill in Dorchester.jared charney/for the Boston Globe

That’s why Adams, Samedi, and Faulk are counting on a bill that Boston City Council has proposed to the state Legislature, to create 250 nontransferable liquor licenses attached to neighborhoods. Those licenses would be available directly from the city, for an annual fee of $3,500 or less, similar to what restaurants typically pay in the suburbs.

Samedi has no illusions about just how crucial the program is to his new restaurant. “Without that,” he says flatly, “we’re going to fail.”

Supporters say the bill would be a big boost to the neighborhood restaurant industry. It would benefit several outer Boston neighborhoods, including East Boston, Hyde Park, West Roxbury, and Roslindale. But it may be most anticipated in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, the heart of Boston’s Black community.

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Securing a liquor license is a challenge for every small entrepreneur, but advocates argue that Boston’s sky-high prices contribute to a particularly significant gap in liquor license ownership by Black restaurateurs. Black people make up more than 22 percent of the city’s population, but only a fraction of its liquor license holders: less than 2 percent, according to an estimate by the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but the city asks an optional demographic question during license renewal. Of the 1,195 renewal applicants for 2024, only 44 identified as Black, or less than 4 percent of license holders — however, 750 people didn’t answer the survey question, so that percentage may be too low.

The neighborhood license bill is much anticipated among Black Bostonians who’ve dreamed of starting their own restaurants. They argue it would remove a barrier to opportunity and could spark creativity, offer chances to build generational wealth, and help neighborhoods flourish.

“[Legislators are] talking about focusing in those neighborhoods that have been divested since we’ve been kids,” Faulk says. “I lived in Roxbury my whole life, and we’ve never had a real restaurant industry.”


When The New York Times named a Boston eatery to its 2023 list of America’s best restaurants, it didn’t select its choice from the South End, the Back Bay, or the Seaport. It went to a little stucco building on Columbia Road in Dorchester, originally built in 1912 as a rest stop for streetcar riders.

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In January 2023, Comfort Kitchen opened in Uphams Corner after a stint as a pop-up in Jamaica Plain. It has a full bar and its menu revolves around the idea of diaspora, sweeping from Nepal to Haiti, Ghana to Jamaica. “In Uphams Corner, there is a restaurant that expresses with depth and deliciousness what food can mean to us: It can nourish and delight. It can tell a story. It can create community,” Globe critic Devra First wrote of Comfort Kitchen when naming it her 2023 restaurant of the year.

“We are the first sit-down, full-service restaurant in this neighborhood in some time,” says Kyisha Davenport, the general manager and beverage director of Comfort Kitchen, which opened in Uphams Corner in January 2023.Rita Tinega

“We are the first sit-down, full-service restaurant in this neighborhood in some time,” says Kyisha Davenport, the restaurant’s general manager and beverage director.

Comfort Kitchen, Davenport says, could never have afforded a half-million dollars for an unrestricted liquor license. Instead, it benefited from a 2014 state law that created 75 new liquor licenses in Boston, a kind of pilot program for the current proposal to create 250 new ones. Most of the licenses granted in 2014 are neighborhood-restricted and nontransferable, meaning when businesses close or don’t renew their licenses, the licenses go back to the city for reissue in the same neighborhood. Comfort Kitchen learned that one earmarked for Dorchester had cycled back and was available. It’s paying $2,900 a year for it.

Comfort Kitchen was lucky. As of mid-January, Boston had only two neighborhood licenses available for reissue. Both were in Roxbury and were for beer and wine only.

“I could not imagine us being able to open without it,” Davenport says. A full bar has been key to the restaurant’s first-year revenue, even with all the positive press. “It would have been an uphill battle to get through this year.”

Davenport, a longtime Boston bartender, says the cost of unrestricted licenses on Boston’s private market isn’t just an economic barrier. For Black hospitality industry workers, it’s become a barrier to something less quantifiable, but no less important: dreaming big.

“There’s a cultural sense that something like a liquor license isn’t for us, because so many resources have already been exported out of these neighborhoods that most businesses have learned to survive without it,” she says. “And we, better or worse, take on this mentality that that’s just not for us, that’s a South End thing, a Back Bay thing, a downtown thing, a North End thing.”

Comfort Kitchen opened in Uphams Corner after a stint as a pop-up in Jamaica Plain. It has a full bar and its menu revolves around the idea of diaspora, sweeping from Nepal to Haiti, Ghana to Jamaica. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Keyana Fultz hopes there’s an affordable liquor license available when she’s ready to break out on her own. “I’ve always wanted a restaurant, since I was little,” she says. She started bartending in Miami 15 years ago, then moved to Boston and worked at a range of places. Right now, she’s busy helping to rebrand and renovate the former Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen in Roxbury, where she’s the manager under owner Nia Grace. Someday, Fultz wants to take the lessons she learned and be her own boss.

Her dream is to open a concept restaurant in Roxbury, with a “higher-end presentation” (she’s keeping some specific details private for now), along with “craft cocktails and different spirits from across the African diaspora.” She wants to give Roxbury residents a place “to go and dine, instead of just having counter-service food.”

She understands that without a liquor license her plan won’t work. “It’ll just be another counter [service], to-go type of situation,” she says. “Most people, when they dine out, they want a glass of wine, they want a cocktail.” She thinks her restaurant will cost around $1 million to launch. Add the going rate for Boston liquor licenses on the private market, and she’s looking at $1.5 million.

Nowhere else in Massachusetts has such an expensive market for restaurant liquor licenses. In the suburbs, they’re usually available directly from the city or town government, for prices ranging from about $2,000 to $7,000. In other words, it’s common to pay 1/100th or even less of what it costs in Boston.

While Fultz works in Roxbury, she lives in Malden, where 31 liquor licenses were available directly from the city for $3,500 each as of mid-January. I asked if she’d considered giving up on Roxbury and opening up in Malden or some other suburb. “I have thought about that,” she says, “but honestly, one of my largest goals is not to just have a restaurant, but also to be able to employ people in the neighborhood — young people who are starting up, or who may not have gone to college.” She wants her restaurant to thrive, but also to be an economic engine for the neighborhood.

That kind of instinct is in large part why Boston’s City Council unanimously voted in March 2023 to ask for more liquor licenses. The bill’s sponsors include the two-brother team of City Councilor Brian Worrell and state Representative Chris Worrell of Dorchester. The current going rate for full liquor licenses in Boston essentially “prices all of the people out within that ZIP code,” Chris Worrell says. “To be willing to put your money on that, you have to be a million-dollar corporation.”

The bill’s 250 nontransferable neighborhood licenses would be issued five per year for five years in each of 10 ZIP codes, mostly in the city’s south and southwest neighborhoods. If a license-holder goes out of business, the license would revert to the city for reissue, again in the same neighborhood.

“Some people look at 250 liquor licenses as [just] liquor licenses,” Chris Worrell says. “I look at 250 opportunities to build generational wealth.”


In October, about three dozen people, including Boston restaurant owners, managers, and workers, came to a five-hour public hearing on Beacon Hill to speak in support of the neighborhood license bill. Some described how license costs stymied their earlier plans, others how previous programs to create restricted licenses made all the difference in their successes.

Nancy Cushman, co-owner of O Ya, Hojoko, and four other restaurants, said the 2006 bill that first created nontransferable neighborhood licenses let her and her husband, chef Tim Cushman, get their start with O Ya in the neighborhood between Chinatown and South Station. Two years later, The New York Times named it the top new restaurant in the United States outside of New York. “O Ya and none of my other restaurants would exist today had I not been granted that one nontransferable license in the Leather District,” Cushman said.

Other restaurateurs agreed. “We wanted to open in Dudley, which is now Nubian Square; we couldn’t do it,” said Luther Pinckney, co-owner of The Pearl, a seafood restaurant. A nontransferable liquor license meant The Pearl could open in Dorchester, Pinckney said, even though he’d originally targeted Roxbury. “We had a space [in Roxbury], but the license was the obstacle we couldn’t get past.”

Devin Adams, who’s managing partner of two restaurants in Quincy, said license prices twice scuttled his attempts to start restaurants in Boston: in the South End in the early 2000s, and again in East Boston a decade later. Instead, he opened The Townshend in 2015 in Quincy Center, where the economics made far more sense. “I was able to get an SBA loan; it paid for our opening staffing, inventory, a complete buildout of a restaurant, and a full, transferable liquor license,” Adams says. “I was able to do all of that for less than the cost of a liquor license in Boston.”

Chris Coombs, chef and co-owner at Deuxave, Boston Chops, and dbar, explains that he didn’t want a neighborhood license for himself, but for others blazing a new trail. “This business is notoriously difficult, with razor-thin margins,” he says. “No one who has the guts to open up in Mattapan is going to get super-super-rich, but they’re going to help that community out. We can transform these neighborhoods that are so stuck.”


Why do restaurant liquor licenses sell for $500,000 or more in Boston and nowhere else in Massachusetts? The answer goes back to Prohibition’s repeal, in 1933. That’s when the state Legislature established the quota system, which sets the number of liquor licenses based on a city or town’s population. The quota system is “designed to ensure that cities and towns do not have too many liquor stores and bars,” explained a 2017 alcohol task force report to the Massachusetts treasurer, which essentially defended the status quo.

But Boston isn’t treated exactly like other Massachusetts cities, which, very roughly, have a quota of about one all-alcohol license for every 1,000 residents, which changes as population changes. Boston’s quota is a set number in the law, though the state Legislature has tinkered with it over the decades. Boston’s base quota, 665, lines up roughly with its population of 675,000. New licenses born of special legislation — including the restricted licenses created in 2006 and 2014 — bring the number of all-alcohol licenses to about 820.

The problem in Boston is that quotas based on resident numbers are an out-of-date approach to regulating a tourism destination with 8 million overnight visits a year. The city is “a destination from the suburbs,” says Steve Miller, a Boston liquor license lawyer and restaurant owner with 50 years’ experience. “Obviously, there’s the tourist business, which is rebounding. Things have changed from the 1930s to today. So the number should be reevaluated.”

When Miller got his start in the 1970s, state quotas had already created a lucrative private market in Boston. For a few years during 1970s and ‘80s recessions, he recalls, the city dropped under quota, eliminating the private license market. “But as the city developed, and got stronger, stronger, and stronger,” he says, “there was more development, more demand.”

Maura Healey has been the third-straight governor to support letting cities and towns set their own quota rules, although she left the proposal out when filing the Municipal Empowerment Act in January (her administration said it needed more time to get the “language right”). The idea of handing decision making from the state to communities could also help places like Brookline that occasionally max out their state quotas. Private markets for liquor licenses can spring up temporarily until the state Legislature takes action, but the prices don’t reach Boston’s heights.

Why not eliminate the quotas entirely? One argument is that current Boston restaurant owners have relied on licenses as a source of wealth for so long — even using them as collateral — that getting rid of the quota would hurt them. The fear is similar to what happened with taxi medallions during the rise of Uber and Lyft: their value, once worth six figures, disintegrated. “If you were going to do away with the quota system, you’d have to figure out a way to do it gradually,” Miller says.

House majority leader Michael Moran of Brighton says he’ll never support getting rid of the quota system. He doesn’t want Boston’s mayor-appointed Licensing Board to completely control the issuing of liquor licenses in his neighborhood, Allston-Brighton, where the civic association has historically opposed any new licenses out of worries over more late-night noise and fights. “For me to give up the voice my community has on this issue would be like political malpractice,” he says.

As for the neighborhood license bill, Moran thinks it “needs a little bit further tweaking” because “certain people want a license to be even more exact,” he says. “Maybe they want a license that [allows liquor] only when food is served, only during certain times, only with a certain number of seats.” Another addition could be a limit on how many neighborhood licenses one owner has, he says, to make it more likely that the new licenses benefit small entrepreneurs: “a chef somewhere in some kitchen with an exciting new idea.”


“We don’t have outside investors,” says Rufus Faulk, one of the partners behind The Mix. “This is these three guys from the neighborhood, trying to bring another neighborhood restaurant to the city.”Jared Charney/for the Boston Globe

Back at The Mix, Faulk, Samedi, and Adams have high hopes. “We want to make sure that we are helping to create a legacy for our families,” Faulk says. He’s well aware of Greater Boston’s racial wealth gap, and the oft-quoted 2015 finding by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston that white families here had a median net worth of $247,500, while the median for Black families was $8.

“Our parents did the best they could,” Faulk says. “But we had to sort of start from zero, and say, ‘OK, I got to do this, this, and this to make this happen.’ We want to make sure our kids don’t have to start from home plate. They could start maybe from second [or] third base.”

The group is watching legislative developments carefully. The state Legislature’s joint licensing committee has recommended the City Council bill for passage. As of late January, it’s with the House Committee on Ways and Means. Cosponsor Chris Worrell feels confident that the House and Senate will approve the bill in the next few months.

Faulk hopes that’s true. “This is our opportunity to really put our flag in the ground to show that great things do come from the city,” he says. “I think for far too long, there’s been sort of a narrative around inner-city dwelling, or folks who come from the neighborhood, and we want to rewrite the narrative.”


Erick Trickey is enterprise editor at the nonprofit newsroom The New Bedford Light and a lecturer in the Boston University department of journalism. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.