In the parts of Boston that show up on postcards and in guidebooks, the population is resurgent, the skies are full of construction cranes, and the restaurants are packed. Quite justifiably, City Hall has tried for years to spread that prosperity to the more diverse neighborhoods to the south and west. Boston has devoted a chunk of its community-development block grants to “Main Streets” groups, which help neighborhoods spruce up their business districts. And initiatives at every level of government seek to stimulate entrepreneurship among women, ethnic minorities, and immigrant communities across the city.
Those efforts, however, are likely to come up short, unless Boston can give business owners like Karen Henry-Garrett and Tran Le a fair shot at licenses to serve alcohol in their restaurants. In a risky, competitive business built on perishable ingredients and low margins, the ability to sell beer, wine, and liquor gives restaurateurs much-needed breathing room.
Le, with her family, runs a two-year-old restaurant called Pho Le in the Fields Corner section of Dorchester; it’s one of a cluster of Vietnamese restaurants in an area just off the MBTA Red Line. Farther south on Dorchester Avenue, British immigrant Henry-Garrett has tried to turn her five-year-old Dot2Dot Cafe into an informal community center. But restaurants simply can’t live up to their potential — as vehicles for their owners’ culinary ambitions or as strong businesses — without the right to sell liquor, or at least beer and wine. State law limits the number of alcohol licenses in cities and towns across the state and imposes a hard cap on licenses in Boston. The city’s Licensing Board seldom has any open licenses to give out.
In its failure to get the cap lifted, the city has closed off a time-honored path to prosperity. To her credit, City Councilor Ayanna Pressley is leading a drive to persuade the Legislature to let Boston issue licenses as the city sees fit. Under her proposal, the Licensing Board would still screen applicants and solicit input from neighbors, but it — not state lawmakers — would determine the total number of licenses in the city. Pressley’s approach shouldn’t be remotely controversial. Yet many State House wheeler-dealers are happy to meddle in a quintessentially local matter. And while Mayor Menino recognized the need for new licenses in the emerging Seaport District, securing Boston’s ability to issue new licenses elsewhere in the city hasn’t been a priority.
Technical and moral support for restaurateurs only goes so far. What they really need to thrive, and become the anchors of vibrant neighborhood Main Streets, is the ability to earn money on their own.
The cap on liquor licenses was imposed on an Irish-dominated city by a censorious Yankee legislature in the 1930s. And in the grim postwar decades of urban decline in Boston, neighbors often came to see establishments with liquor licenses as magnets for criminals, prostitutes, or, at best, students with fake IDs.
Yet just as Boston and other major US cities have sprung back to life in recent decades, diners have grown more adventurous — and have come to expect a restaurant experience that includes a drink. “The dining-out culture has changed in Boston,” observes Tran Le, the Fields Corner restaurant owner. “If people go out and have sushi and sake, it’s not perceived as being that exotic anymore. And having a glass of wine with a meal can be a rather common thing.” Restaurants that can’t fill that need aren’t able to provide a complete dining experience.
While Boston can’t issue new licenses, well-financed restaurateurs can buy them from someone else. But because of the artificial scarcity of licenses, a full liquor license can go for more than $300,000. Even a beer and wine license often costs $40,000 or more — a crippling expense to someone like Henry-Garrett, who bought her restaurant tables at Ikea to save money.
Though opaque to outsiders, the market for Boston alcohol licenses is manageable for large hospitality companies. It works well for lawyers and brokers who’ve mastered the process, and for the elected officials to whom they contribute. Yet the cost and complexity of the system freezes out a classic American type — plucky entrepreneurs, often immigrants or first-generation strivers, who start restaurants on a shoestring. “Why should I have to call a lawyer first,” asks Henry-Garrett, “to even know what the process is?”
The cap on liquor licenses creates broader problems. The system has, for instance, become a locus for political corruption. Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson — whose district included Roxbury, a neighborhood long starved for economic development — took bribes in exchange for trying to steer a license to a local businessman.
Sordid as it was, the Wilkerson case also hints at how hard it’s become to get alcohol licenses outside the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, for the cap turns alcohol licensing into a zero-sum game. When planning glitzy new locations in upscale areas, established chains will buy liquor licenses from less-well-heeled establishments in Dorchester or Mattapan. Increasingly, these neighborhoods are cut off from what in other cities is a common engine of redevelopment: Seeing empty storefronts and low commercial rents, a restaurateur takes a chance on opening a new eatery. Novelty-seeking diners scout out lower-cost eats in funky settings. If one restaurant’s appeal is broad enough, others follow. So, eventually, do other businesses.
Many of Boston’s humbler neighborhoods need the boost that a thriving restaurant can provide. Restaurants — if they’re allowed to — will play an ever larger role in the health of local business districts. Unlike bookstores and clothing shops of yesteryear, they’re not vulnerable to e-commerce.
They’re also essential to the holy grail of development in Boston: mixed residential and commercial projects along major transit lines. The success of these projects hinges on whether residents can walk to a variety of businesses — including places where they get something to eat. But to justify building ground-floor retail space, developers need to be sure they can fill it. To a developer, a restaurant without an alcohol license looks like a potentially unreliable tenant; to a lender, a developer with iffy tenants looks like a bad risk. There’s a good reason the Quincy City Council — which has approved an ambitious $1.6 billion plan to remake its center with dense mixed-use development — has petitioned the Legislature for more than two dozen new downtown liquor licenses. “This may be the most important decision you make to the success of Quincy,” a consultant told the council.
Meanwhile in Dorchester, restaurant owner Henry-Garrett is trying to build a following for Dot2Dot Cafe: She has pictures by local artists on the walls. She plays host to a book club and a knitting night. She’s held events using one-day alcohol licenses. Yet a beer and wine license would only enhance her ability to serve as a neighborhood rallying point — and make it practical for her to stay open for dinner.
One can imagine a thousand different public initiatives that would help a fledgling business like hers grow: low-interest loans, economic development grants, assistance in getting the word out. But City Hall could help far more by leaning on Beacon Hill — and letting aspiring restaurateurs get the alcohol licenses they need to thrive.