BOSTON — It’s a fact of business in Boston: If you’re opening a restaurant and want to serve liquor, it’s going to cost you. A full liquor license could run upwards of $300,000, and that’s if you can find one available.
The folks who run Pho Le, a Vietnamese restaurant in the Fields Corner section of Dorchester, know the story well. Thu Pham says not having a liquor license costs them customers every day.
“They come in here and say, ‘You have beer and wine?’ I say, ‘No, I don’t,’ and they walk away, next door,” said Pham, who lost out to another Vietnamese restaurant nearby whose owners got a license that was up for grabs a few years ago.
Because the cap on licenses is controlled by the state, Boston has been maxed out for some time. The only way to get one is to buy one someone else is holding. But Pham says that’s been impossible.
That’s a big reason why at-large Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley wants to overhaul the licensing process. She is challenging the 1933 law that gives the state authority to set limits on liquor licenses. She says the cap hurts neighborhoods and has put forward a petition to wrest control from the state.
“The current law that’s on the books is antiquated and is hurting our small businesses and our neighborhoods. It’s a confusing process. It’s cost prohibitive,” Pressley said. “The control needs to be returned to municipalities so that we can determine how best to economically revitalize our neighborhoods.”
This has long been an issue for city councilors such as Charles Yancey, who represents Mattapan and parts of Dorchester, where there are fewer licenses and they’re mostly for liquor stores.
“The liquor license issue is critical if you are going to promote business development in any neighborhood,” Yancey said. “We need some decent restaurants in virtually every neighborhood of the city of Boston and part of that is having a liquor license, at least a beer and wine license, to go along with the meal.”
Pressley agrees and says the primary focus should be on restaurants.
“Not more bars and clubs, not more box liquor stores, [focus] on restaurants,” she said. “Because I believe in the transformative power of them to build community, to be community anchors, cultural institutions and to create jobs.”
In recent years, businesses that have closed down in places like Roxbury have sold their licenses to the highest bidders who then open establishments in more trendy areas of the city, leading to disparity in liquor licenses by neighborhood.
“The North End is 0.2 square miles. They have 99 liquor licenses. They don’t want any more. The city should be deciding,” Pressley said. “Roxbury has 26 liquor licenses and 17 of them are for box liquor stores. Now that is not mitigating social ills, that is not creating jobs and that certainly is not building wealth.”
Councilor Pressley’s home-rule petition must win City Council approval, then get the mayor’s signature in order to be sent to Beacon Hill. It has support from other municipalities — the mayors of Salem and Somerville are among those expected to testify at a hearing on the petition Wednesday.
Some in the restaurant industry oppose the measure, saying it could be unfair to existing license holders and that making more licenses available would lessen the value of those already being held. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association did not respond to requests for comment on this story.