Will Boston Drink To That?

BYOB Policy Change Could Benefit Retail Economy

as seen on Banker & Tradesman, October 25, 2015

On a Friday night in Boston, we can’t just walk into the Capital Grille with a six-pack of the latest rage in craft beer or a bottle of bubbly we’ve been waiting to pop since New Year’s Eve. Massachusetts law prevents dining patrons from bringing any alcohol into an establishment that holds a license to serve alcohol.

Even still, unlicensed establishments are at the mercy of local officials: every municipality is free to prohibit, allow or license the practice known as “bring your own bottle” (BYOB). Boston has long prohibited the practice; however, the tides are changing, and so too may the option for Boston diners to BYOB.

Let’s face it: the ability to sell and serve alcohol at full-service dining establishments increases frequency of visitors and the chances that patrons stay a little longer and return time and time again. However, with all-alcoholic beverage licenses costing as much as $400,000 in Boston, a BYOB option could theoretically help those first-time restaurant owners and young entrepreneurial chefs focus on the food while they attempt to earn their place in the ever-evolving restaurant industry.

This past winter, Boston City Councilors At-Large Michelle Wu and Stephen Murphy proposed an amendment to the City of Boston Code to allow patrons to bring their own alcoholic beverages into dining establishments that lack an alcoholic beverages license. The proposal was presented in the spirit of economic development, similar to the economic growth bill of 2014 creating new, albeit restricted liquor licenses for the city. Of course, the allowance of BYOB in Boston restaurants would not come without regulation. How it should be regulated is up for debate, particularly out of fairness to those businesses that have otherwise spent a small fortune for the privilege to serve alcohol.

Location As A Starting Point

After the debates of last year’s bill in creating the new unrestricted licenses, one obvious criteria would be the imposition of geographic restrictions. Such restrictions are an appropriate starting point in balancing current investments with the need for economic stimulation in other neighborhoods. The notion of BYOB permits may be better received if prohibited from setting up shop in the downtown area, Back Bay and North End, which tend to be the first neighborhoods used as examples of areas amply saturated with liquor licenses. The city might also consider imposing restrictions on the number of seats allowed inside a BYOB establishment (or, no bar seating, for example) or limitations on the types of alcohol permitted for consumption (i.e. beer and wine only).

Some commonwealth locales, such as Mansfield and nearby Brookline, issue BYOB permits to unlicensed establishments for free; however, they elect to include certain caveats, such as mandatory alcohol server training programs, ID checking, food order requirements and corkage fee rules. Just last month, the Watertown Town Council voted 6-3 to approve a BYOB ordinance, which will go into effect April 1, 2016. The reoccurring issues throughout these discussions focused around cost of the permits as well as enforcement of BYOB regulations.

Boston is not the first to consider BYOB, and can learn from other U.S. cities that have successfully paved the way for their citizens to BYOB on their next anniversary dinner. According to wine writer Roger Morris, “Pennsylvania restaurants have turned a major negative – limited liquor licenses, and expensive ones at that – into a marketing positive” using BYOB. Philadelphia has become the BYOB mecca with over 200 BYOB establishments. Pennsylvania, unlike Massachusetts, allows BYOB in licensed or unlicensed restaurants.

Over the past decade, the city of Boston not only looks, but feels like it has undergone a major facelift. Few can argue the results – new and vibrant neighborhoods and businesses have been established, development opportunity has flourished, and we’ve earned our spot on the map as a hub for innovation and dare we say … fun? (Very responsible, adult fun, of course.)

Allowing for thoughtfully regulated BYOB would benefit the surrounding neighborhoods, provide more options for great food, and put more lights and eyes on our streets. If the city finally decides to raise its glass in a toast to BYOB, it might be the perfect occasion for that bottle of bubbly you’ve been saving since last New Year’s Eve.