Boston Liquor Licensing Expensive, Cumbersome

The arrest of state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson for alleged corruption cast a spotlight on the process of licensing for beer, wine and liquor in the city of Boston.

According to the criminal complaint against Wilkerson, she pulled political strings and went around the regular process to get a license for a nightclub in exchange for a bribe. The usual way establishments get a license is a cumbersome, expensive and long process that dates back to the early days of the Commonwealth. WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov reports.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Spicy Indian food pairs well with a cold beer.

PAMI SINGH: We serve typically north Indian food and also some of the continental...

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Pami Singh is the co-owner of Punjab Palace Indian restaurant in Allston.

PAMI SINGH: Also, we serve a great selection of beer and wine.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Punjab Palace only got its beer and wine license a few months ago, after waiting for nearly two years. Singh applied for a new license, but found there weren't any available. So he says he found one to buy from another establishment because so many customers walked out when they couldn't get a drink.

PAMI SINGH: Definitely because it helps. Otherwise it's very tough.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The state legislature sets the number of liquor licenses in Boston. The three member licensing board is appointed by the governor. It's a hold over from the days when the Protestants running the state didn't trust the Irish Catholics running Boston to be responsible with the licensing. Other major cities base liquor licenses on population.

In 2007 Senator Dianne Wilkerson proposed and successfully passed legislation adding 40 new all alcohol licenses. It's now alleged that legislation was part of her effort to secure one for a constituent who was bribing her. Boston now has 1,080 licenses. But demand is much higher says Larry DiCara, a lawyer with Nixon Peabody who helps clients get licenses.

LARRY DICARA: There have not been enough licenses for a long time and that's one of the reasons pursuant to simple laws of supply and demand that the price of an all alcohol license has gone up.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Usually a business that wants a liquor license has to buy one on the open market. It can cost up to $400,000. Chris Spagnuolo co-owner of Panificio Bakery and Bistro on Beacon Hill didn't want to pay the street value of a license when he opened a new restaurant. Instead he applied for one of the new beer and wine licenses in 2007 when he opened a Panificio in the Back Bay.

CHRIS SPAGNUOLO: I went to every single licensing board meeting probably for a year with the same thing I had to keep filing, keep filing they knew we down there I was a joke every time I came up it was nice to see you again.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Despite these efforts, Spagnuolo had to open the bistro without being able to sell beer and wine. After an additional 8 months of waiting, he was granted a license from the state for under $2,000. But the lost revenue, Spagnuolo says, was a large factor in the failure of the restaurant less than a year later.

CHRIS SPAGNUOLO: It shouldn't be such a big process that something of that adding something to neighborhood had to fall under such a confusing and unbelievable process to have to get beer and wine license.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Technically there are no limits on the number of licenses a neighborhood can have. But in the quest for a license, neighborhood associations play just as large a role as the state and city boards. The North End and Allston are two areas of the city that are considered saturated and are nearly impossible to get a license because of neighborhood opposition. Punjab Palace in Allston got lucky because it was allowed to buy a license in one neighborhood and transfer it. But many newer Asian restaurants complain they can't get one, while many older white-owned establishments have the right to serve. Paul Berkeley of the Allston Civic Association says it's not about race.

PAUL BERKELEY: You think about how to you satisfy public need, you can't get too many without passing public need fulfilled. We took a position we didn't need any more licenses, didn't to us if it was Asian, Russian, Greek, Italian.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The chair of the Boston Licensing Board is away on vacation and unavailable for comment. But it's clear from speaking with restaurant owners the laborious process and limited number of licenses stands in the way of many restaurant owners.

However, the value of transferrable licenses also inhibits challenges to the liquor licensing system.

For WBUR, I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.

This program aired on November 4, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.


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