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Liquor license changes aimed at more diverse restaurant scene

Posted by Tom Coakley  July 7, 2011 01:16 PM

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Natick officials are developing a new approach to liquor licensing that would make it easier for restaurants to get licenses, allow the eateries to make more of their money off liquor sales and encourage smaller, more intimate eating establishments.

The developments are an attempt to bolster the town’s economy and provide a more varied dining experience.

New proposals being considered would permit restaurants to obtain a greater percentage of their gross revenue from liquor sales and allow the establishments to count bar stools and lounge seats in determining whether they have the 100 seats needed to qualify for a license. The number of bar seats couldn’t be more than 10 percent of the total. A hearing before the Board of Selectmen on the proposals will continue Monday.

Another set of changes - now before the state Legislature - could increase the number of beer and wine licenses in town without increasing the total number of licenses and would drop the number of seats need to get one of those licenses from 50 to 15.

“From a broad perspective, anything that stimulates people going out and enjoying the fine restaurants in the town of Natick or encourages more restaurants to open and provide services to Natick and surrounding communities is a good thing for both building community and allowing for more economic development,” said Bonnie Biocchi, president and CEO of the Metrowest Chamber of Commerce, which supports the changes.

“People come out for shopping, dining, and maybe they will stay and spend the money downtown,” she said. “Look at other communities that have the same feel of an upcale downtown: most of those have restaurants with liquor licenses.”

Under the new rules being considered by selectmen, restaurants would be able to make 35 percent of their gross revenue from liquor sales as opposed to the current 20 percent. Also, the allowable number of bar stools and lounge seats could be counted toward the minimum seats needed for a liquor license, which restaurants cannot do now.

The board is also looking to delete extraneous parking requirements, remove the definition of sushi bar and food bar, and update licensing fees for the new changes.

Natick currently has 34 licenses, which are given out to communities by the state Legislature based on population. Seven of the licenses are for beer and wine; the rest are full licenses. Only three of the full licenses are now available.

Selectman Charles Hughes, who is chairman of the board, said current license rules make it too difficult for restaurants and limit the kinds of restaurants coming to Natick.

“Bars can be no more than 10 percent of total seats and they don’t count toward license; so if a restaurant has 10 seats at the bar, they need a total of 110 seats to get an alcohol license,” Hughes said. “The real change is the changing rules of food to alcohol ratio. A lot of the restaurants tell us the industry is at about 70/30, so there was concern that our rules were too restrictive in allowing newer smaller restaurants to open.”

As selectmen consider the new proposals, home rule petitions have been sent to the Legislature for decreasing the number of seats needed for a beer and wine license from 50 to 15. The town is also seeking the flexibility to change up to 10 of the full license to beer and wine licenses.

These petitions aim to get small restaurants to open in Natick, since the downtown space cannot physically support 50-seat and bigger establishments, Selectman Joshua Ostroff said. He said the proposals have been referred to a legislative committee for consideration this month or next month.

“Those two taken together will help Natick by encouraging the restaurant economy, which is complementary toward cultural destinations,” Ostroff said. “[We’re] still keeping it on the small scale, so we’re not encouraging 200-seat restaurants or chain establishments.”

Ostroff said opening more restaurants would help Natick thrive economically and socially.

“In a broader context, it would make Natick Center a desirable place to live, work and get around on foot,” he said.

Hughes stressed that despite the changes food would remain the main attraction in establishments, since the town is not permitted to give “tavern licenses,” or licenses stressing bar seating rather than tables and food.

“The service of food has to be the larger part of gross revenue. It still has to be a restaurant,” Hughes said.

Most feedback on the issue from restaurant owners and citizens has been positive, Hughes said.

“I haven’t had anything negative from the public, but I’m hopeful to hear from people Monday night to see what their feelings are,” he said.

John Stournaras, co-owner of Morse Tavern in Natick, said while the policy revisions would not affect his restaurant’s business plan, they seemed to help more than hinder.

“I think that would be good for the town,” Stournaras said. “I don’t see any problems as long as you run a good operation. Those sound like pretty positive steps in the right direction.”

Stournaras said he did not feel threatened by new eateries potentially opening up nearby.

“You have Rte. 9, and there are a ton of restaurants there already,” he said. “In our immediate area, I don’t think a chain could actually find usable space. It would have to be a smaller scale operation.”

Even if the town changes the liquor laws, Stournaras said his restaurant will continue to focus on its main cash cow: food.

“Our food is very important to us, and always has been,” he said. “The vast majority of our business is food. The alcohol complements it, and it’s a part of the business, but it’s not the main part of the business.”

The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. on the second floor of Natick Town Hall.

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