Neighborhood-based licenses making slow progress
Liquor licenses were once like taxi medallions, difficult to obtain and priced out of reach for many small-business owners.
Boston has just 970 of those licenses — beer and wine, and all liquor — but most aren’t found in neighborhoods like Roxbury, Hyde Park, and Mattapan.
Because of the licenses’ limited supply, the cost of obtaining one soared, some going for as much as $370,000 in an unregulated resale market.
After a years-long fight, the Legislature last year passed a law aiming to reverse that pattern. The law gave Boston an additional 75 restricted liquor licenses to award incrementally over three years, with most of the licenses set aside for underserved neighborhoods and the city’s Main Street Districts. And licenses were affordable, too, costing under $3,000.
But eight months since the first batch of licenses became available, nobody from Mattapan has applied for one, no one from Mission Hill, and only one restaurant owner from Roxbury.
“The liquor license legislation has been on the books for 100 years, crippling small business in our neighborhoods,’’ said City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who championed liquor license reform. “It’s going to take more than a year, even with our reforms, to undo that damage and to address the disparity that it created.”
Christine Pulgini , chairwoman of Boston’s Licensing Board, said 60 of the new licenses are restricted to seven neighborhoods: Dorchester, East Boston, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Mission Hill, and Roxbury. The restriction means if a restaurant closes, the licenses must stay put in the neighborhood where they were initially granted.
The lack of applicants from the city’s struggling communities has stunned politicos and advocates alike. City Councilor Josh Zakim said he needs to step up efforts in his Mission Hill community to let residents know the licenses are available. Just six establishments in that neighborhood had liquor licenses last year, city data show.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh had predicted the new liquor licenses would boost jobs, economies, and development in each neighborhood. He cautioned there is still plenty of time to get the word out and encourage restaurant owners to apply.
“They are not going to open up overnight,’’ Walsh said. “It’s going to take a little bit of a process.”
Indeed, the restaurant landscape seems uneven across the city. The law benefited Keith Harmon, co-owner of Tres Gatos in Jamaica Plain. Previously, Tres Gatos was licensed to serve only beer and wine. Customers who wanted cocktails often left disappointed. The law has allowed Harmon and the other co-owners to offer a full bar.
“This will help us meet a big demand,’’ Harmon said. “We are a restaurant now, and we were a restaurant before. But now, we won’t have many people leaving or electing not to come because we don’t have what they want to drink.”
But places such as Mattapan remain food deserts. There is not one sit-down restaurant in the neighborhood serving alcohol. Mattapan’s two liquor licenses are held by a Latin bar and a veterans post.
Pressley would like to see the cap on liquor licenses lifted completely. Still, she said last year’s change in the law has succeeded in trimming cost and widening access.
But communities that historically have been shut out and cut off from the process, and aspiring restaurateurs, need more than access to licenses, business owners say. They need space to grow, money to rebuild, community buy-in, and cash for the licenses before they can even apply for a liquor license.
A cafe grows in Dudley Square
There will be coffee and pastries by day, Indian food and beer and white wine by night.
And it will be unlike anything else in Dudley Square.
Solmon Chowdhury and his wife, Rokeya, this month became the recipients of the square’s first liquor license under the new law.
The Chowdhurys plan to open their Dudley Cafe inside the gleaming Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in July.
“No one else is offering anything like this in Dudley Square, so that after work people can grab a glass of wine,’’ Solmon Chowdhury said. “Dudley Square needs it.”
The Boston Licensing Board gave its stamp of approval this month. Previously, Roxbury, with a population of more than 48,000, had just eight restaurants with alcohol licenses, according to the licensing board. With the Dudley Cafe, there now will be nine.
Chowdhury said his cafe will seat 49 people, offer al fresco dining, and stay open until 10 at night. The Chowdhurys are owners of the popular Indian restaurant Shanti, with locations in Dorchester and Roslindale. They also own Moksa, which offers a pan-Asian menu, in Cambridge.
Chowdhury, 39, grew up in Cambridge, lived in Dorchester, and has been living a few minutes from Dudley Square for the past 12 years.
“We love it here,’’ he said.
Chowdhury said he had been planning a restaurant in his neighborhood for some time, waiting for the revival of Dudley Square, Roxbury’s largest commercial district. And he does not mind being the first.
“We like the challenge,’’ Chowdhury said. “This is what we’ve been envisioning for a long time. We hope the neighborhood supports it.”
No takers for permits in Mattapan
At the Pit Stop Barbecue in Mattapan, where the specialty is pork ribs marinated in a special rub with roots in South Carolina, the owners are primed to expand.
But there’s a problem or two: space, costs — and no beer or wine on the menu.
“We’ve been looking at how much this place generates, and the one thing that is making the difference out there,’’ co-owner Darrell Debnam said. “The big difference is alcohol, because I’ve tasted the food [from the competitors], and it’s not all that good.”
They want to make the Pit Stop a destination for families to sit down, chow down, and, eventually, enjoy a beer or a glass wine.
The restaurant terrain in Mattapan, at the far end of the city, remains rocky. The neighborhood has a half-dozen or so restaurants, but not one serves alcohol. The only establishments with alcohol licenses are a Latin nightclub and the local veterans post.
Some restaurants contacted by the Globe said they were aware of the new licenses, but either did not want to apply this year or did not want to serve alcohol. Others, such as Pit Stop Barbecue, were not prepared to apply.
Earlier this month, Mayor Martin J. Walsh attended a summit with elected officials and business owners, appealing for ideas on how businesses can improve and grow in Mattapan.
City Councilor Timothy McCarthy, whose district includes Mattapan, said a new CVS and the rebuilt Mattapan Community Health Center are breathing life into the neighborhood square, but more work needs to be done.
“I don’t want to say that [Mattapan has] been forgotten,” said McCarthy, who became a councilor in January. “It just needs to be a new focus right now, and a positive direction.”
Tina Petigny, executive director of the neighborhood’s Main Streets program, said officials have identified the old Ashley Stewart clothing store in Mattapan Square and another spot along River Street that could be transformed into restaurants. So far, they have not attracted a developer.
“We are trying to bring someone in. We are working with the mayor’s office,’’ Petigny said. “Mattapan is getting a lot of attention.
In East Boston, businesses big and small take advantage
Boston Brewin Coffee is just the kind of joint lawmakers had in mind when they made more liquor licenses available.
It’s a coffee shop run by John Tyler and his wife, Melissa, inside Maverick Marketplace, which has incubator space for small retailers and offices.
Maybe, they figured, their place could steer more people and business to the building. And maybe it could bring a shot glass-full of nightlife to Eastie, with hyper-local beers from Boston and made-in-Massachusetts liquor, and hours stretching to 10:30 at night.
“This is a new thing for us,’’ Tyler said.
It’s one of three East Boston businesses that received a coveted license to serve alcohol.
Two, including Boston Brewin at Maverick Marketplace, are smaller establishments. The other is East Boston Kitchen, whose Facebook site said it closed during the winter to “reassess.” Calls to the restaurant’s phone number posted online went unanswered.
And then there’s the Hilton Garden Inn, a large building going up on Boardman Street that includes a one-story, 6,270 square-foot retail/restaurant building on the north side of the property. A 4,035-square-foot retail/restaurant building will sit to the west, according to a proposal submitted to the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
The restaurants would generate an estimated 15 full-time and 30 part-time jobs, the proposal said.
The Hilton is a major hotel that could easily afford the value of a liquor license on the resale market, some small business owners said.
“I’m not sure that this was Ayanna Pressley’s goal in this legislation,’’ said John Tyler , referring to the Boston city councilor who has championed the expansion of liquor licenses in neighborhoods. “This is supposed to be for small businesses.”
City Councilor Salvatore LaMatinna defended the decision to award a restricted license to the Hilton, saying hotel officials said they would “do their best” to provide community jobs and improve East Boston.
These are “jobs and opportunities for people not only in East Boston, but the surrounding neighborhoods,” he said.