This past winter, Boston City Councilors At-Large Michelle Wu and Stephen Murphy proposed an amendment to Chapter 17 of the City of Boston Code to allow patrons to bring their own alcoholic beverages into dining establishments that lack an alcoholic beverages license. See Boston Globe article for details. Currently, Massachusetts law prevents patrons from bringing any alcohol into an establishment which already holds a license to sell or serve alcoholic beverages. According to the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC), 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”).
Some locales, such as Mansfield, MA, issue BYOB (beer and wine only) permits to unlicensed establishments for free, however they elect to include certain caveats, such as TIPs training for servers, ID checking, and corkage fee rules. (Helpful tip: TIPs training is always a good idea for any restaurant establishment.) As another example, the Watertown Town Council is scheduled to vote on the subject of BYOB this week (September 22), at it's public hearing. Watertown's liquor license quota is currently capped at 34, while it awaits the legislature's decision in response to it's home rule petition for 15 additional licenses. Boston, like Cambridge, and Somerville, ban the BYOB practice all together.
Boston could learn from the experience in other municipalities and states when proposing new BYOB regulations for the City. Take Pennsylvania for example: a licensed or unlicensed restaurant may opt to allow BYOB. (See PA's law in further detail here.) Some municipalities in Pennsylvania charge fees for a BYOB permit, while others will issue it free of charge and use the license as a means of ensuring that the establishment is current on all of its local taxes and fees. The City of Philadelphia alone (probably the prime example of BYOB in the country) has over 200 BYOB establishments in Center City. According to wine writer Roger Morris, restaurants in Pennsylvania have “turned a major negative—limited liquor licenses, and expensive ones at that—into a marketing positive” using BYOB.
Let’s face it: the ability to sell and serve alcoholic beverages at full-service dining establishments increases frequency of visitors and the chances that patrons stay a little longer and return time and time again for a complete dining experience. However, with all-alcoholic beverage licenses costing nearly $400,000 in Boston, a BYOB option could theoretically help those first time restaurant owners or young chefs with less capital focus on the food while they attempt to earn their place in the ever-evolving restaurant industry.
Of course, the allowance of BYOB would not come without its restrictions and regulations. The Boston BYOB proposal states that instituting BYOB would “encourage local economic development.” But how should it be regulated? Is it fair to those who have paid thousands of dollars for liquor licenses? Should there be a cost for BYOB permits? Should the number of seats matter? Should geographic restrictions be imposed? Does this even make sense for the Boston restaurant scene? Let's hear your thoughts.