They sit out on the sidewalks of Boston, inviting you to grab a cold beer, come in for the lunch special, get your nails done, park your car.

They’re the ubiquitous A-frame sandwich board signs — an inexpensive way for merchants to push their goods and services to passersby, often with a pun or a quippy one-liner.

But amid all those wisecracks, retailers in Boston may be paying little heed to legal requirements.

Last November, a pilot ordinance was put in place by the City Council to respond to criticisms that previous rules surrounding sandwich board and other free-standing signs were confusing and varied widely by neighborhood and business district.


The sidewalk signs must now meet a number of requirements. They can be no larger than 24 by 36 inches and must contain the name, address, and telephone number of the business. The outside signs can advertise only the products and services the merchant is actually selling and cannot promote the sale of alcohol and tobacco.

Dunkin’ Donuts removed the sign at left when the violation was pointed out: It did not advertise anything that was for sale in the store, as required.
Dunkin’ Donuts removed the sign at left when the violation was pointed out: It did not advertise anything that was for sale in the store, as required.David L Ryan/Globe Staff

What’s more, the signs cannot inhibit the flow of pedestrian traffic.

Perhaps more important, if the provisions are not followed and warnings are not heeded, the new ordinance allows the city’s public works commissioner to step in and confiscate the signs.

“We’re monitoring things to see how it goes,” said Steven Tankle, director of code enforcement for the department.

But a recent unscientific check suggested that many businesses may have a ways to go. Of the 25 signs on Charles Street in Beacon Hill, for example, not one was in full compliance with the ordinance.

Nearly all of the sidewalk signs were larger — many of then much larger — than the allowed maximum of 24 by 36 inches. One of the biggest belonged to Hancock Real Estate on Charles Street, whose apartment rental street sign measures 29 by 53 inches.


“I’ve had the sign there for a long time. I think it’s been grandfathered in,” Hancock president John Kelleher said.

In downtown Boston, dozens of signs appeared to violate the ordinance.

For example, the 27- by 46-inch sign fronting Sean Sullivan’s Dunkin’ Donuts on Washington Street was over the legal limit and did not advertise any items the store served. (It was a help wanted sign.) It also failed to contain the address and phone number of the shop.

But Sullivan, like many other store owners, expressed a common refrain: “You know, I wasn’t aware of the ordinance,” he said. But the doughnut shop proprietor, who said he owns 34 other Dunkin’ Donuts franchises, said he would pull the sign off the sidewalk “right away.”

“I want to be in compliance,” he said. A day later, his sign was gone.

Back on Charles Street, the sign on the street by the neighborhood staple DeLuca’s Market advertises spirits, beer, and wine.

Owner Virgil Aiello said he too knew nothing of the rule, nor its ban on the promotion of alcoholic beverages. “That’s interesting,” he said.

The next day the sign was still there, advertising the booze.

Tankle, the city’s chief code enforcement official, said his department doesn’t go out looking for violations. “We are complaint-driven,” he said. “So any type of complaint that comes in from the public or if we have to stumble upon one, we will investigate.”

So far, the city has received three complaints. Two of the retailers were found to be in violation and were asked to fix the problem, Tankle said.


The sign by DeLuca’s Market in Beacon Hill advertises spirits, beer, and wine.
The sign by DeLuca’s Market in Beacon Hill advertises spirits, beer, and wine.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

City Councilor Michael Flaherty, who was the major proponent of the ordinance, said he hopes it’s working.

“I wanted to bring some consistency to the use of street signs, but that can only happen if the ordinance is enforced and adhered to,” he said.

The City Council will take a look at how well the pilot ordinance worked when it expires at the end of this year, Flaherty said, and “we’ll go from there.”