State legislators this week will debate two modest changes to the state’s antiquated and convoluted alcohol laws, with backers — including Governor Charlie Baker — saying the proposed Band-Aid fixes will help Massachusetts shake its reputation as a difficult place to do business.
Both measures were included Tuesday in a new draft of a sweeping economic development bill that the House of Representatives will consider.
One would allow grocery stores that sell take-home alcohol to also serve alcohol at in-store restaurants, after getting permission from the local licensing board.
The impetus for the measure is the imminent opening at the Prudential Center of Eataly, the food emporium headlined by celebrity chef Mario Batali,
The other measure would extricate the popular Nashoba Valley Winery in Bolton from a licensing debacle by permitting local producers to serve alcohol at restaurants they operate on their farms.
“There’s a market for these types of establishments, and it’s important that we try to modernize the laws that we have here to accommodate that,” said Paul McMorrow, director of policy and communications at Baker’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. “Our priority is to send the signal to businesses that we want to create an environment here in Massachusetts that’s conducive to investment and growth.”
Eataly, a $20 million Italian food market and multi-restaurant complex under construction in the former Pru food court, plans to sell take-home alcohol in its market and serve wine and other drinks in its restaurants. In Massachusetts, retailers are not allowed to do both.
Adam Saper, Eataly’s chief financial officer, cautioned that he would need to review the specific legislative language but cheered the spirit of the bill.
“Anything leading in this direction is good,” he said. “Clearly, our business model would benefit from it. This works in many other states.”
Still, Saper said, the company is moving forward as if the bill will not pass. Eataly is considering physically separating or subleasing its planned take-home alcohol market to another company to sidestep the current prohibition on dual licenses.
State officials said local grocery stores might also take advantage of the measure if it is passed. A spokeswoman for Wegmans, a New York-based supermarket chain that recently expanded into Massachusetts, was enthusiastic.
“We support this bill because it could allow us to build in-store restaurants, which are very popular with our customers in other states,” said the spokeswoman, Valerie Fox.
The measure would apply only to stores that gt more than half of their revenue from selling groceries, which would exclude conventional package stores. The cap on the number of liquor licenses a single owner can hold would not change. Currently, grocery chains may sell alcohol at a maximum of seven locations; by law that number will increase to nine in 2020.
The second measure would explicitly permit dozens of farmers who produce either wine, beer, or distilled spirits to simultaneously hold a license to make and pour alcohol on the farms’ premises, and a second one to serve those drinks at an on-site restaurant.
(The on-farm restaurants would be barred from serving alcohol made elsewhere.)
This change, authored by the office of Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, which oversees the state’s alcohol regulators, is a direct response to an uproar over the status of Nashoba Valley Winery.
The picturesque farm makes wine, beer, and spirits and draws thousands of visitors for apple picking and alcohol tastings. But earlier this year, the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission told Nashoba it would have to choose between its restaurant pouring license and the three licenses it has for making and serving wine, beer, and spirits — even though the agency had granted Nashoba all four licenses in each of the past 13 years.
Nashoba’s owner, Rich Pelletier, sued the ABCC, saying its decision would force him to close the restaurant and lay off nearly 50 workers.
Goldberg’s office was already at work on a legislative remedy when a frustrated Baker sounded off, saying he supported the farm and threatening to intervene. The governor’s office proposed similar legislation, but lawmakers ultimately adopted Goldberg’s version.
The treasurer said Tuesday that she was grateful the House leadership is moving quickly. Pelletier has indicated he would welcome the measure’s passage.
Also among the measures the House leadership added to the economic bill is language that would eliminate an obscure law: a ban on stores selling alcohol on the Monday after Christmas in years when the holiday falls on a Sunday.