Natick has begun reviewing its alcohol licensing policies, with an eye toward updating them to address changing lifestyle and business demands.
The review is part of a broader Select Board initiative to assess and update the town’s policies, says Board member Paul Joseph, who’s part of a team examining the alcohol policies. Among others involved are Natick Police Lt. Brian Lauzon, Director of Community & Economic Development Amanda Loomis, and Deputy Town Administrator Jon Marshall.
Reviewing the rules
“I have been a proponent of changing our alcohol policies for a long time, notably the requirement of having a prescribed percentage of annual revenue from food,” Joseph told us via email.
Natick’s rules & regulations for on-premises alcoholic beverage sales cite the need for businesses renewing alcohol sales licenses to produce “an accounting statement reporting the gross receipts for all primary services sold at the establishment and the comparative percentage of gross receipts derived from the sale of alcoholic beverages. Such statement shall be certified by a Certified Public Accountant.” The rules and regulations have established a ratio of 35/65 (the percentage of alcohol/food to gross sales) as the guideline for compliance with this provision.
Mike Johnson, an admin for the Facebook group called “Let’s Get a Pub in Downtown Natick!”, says he was on the review committee some 10 years ago that got that ratio reduced from 20/80. ” Because of the old stigma of Natick being ‘an old gin town, full of drunks passed out in the gutters and prostitutes waving from windows’ the town enacted very strict bylaws that prohibited many things such as an actual bar. This model forced restaurants to sell cheap beverages to make sure their license was renewed,” he says.
“We tried to maintain the good fight to get a place downtown for the locals to walk to or stop by on their way home from the commuter rail,” he adds.
Joseph said during a recent Select Board meeting that a key to moving forward will be understanding new business models.
“What came up in our first meeting was this discussion of ‘What is a bar vs. a tavern?'” he said. “Having legal definitions that might not be up to speed with how current practices exist. For example, there are essentially what would be bars that exist but through relationships with food delivery services or the like, it’s possible to have on-premises foods, but in a delivery model.”
With all the mixed-use developments in the works in Natick, much of the discussion has been around the apartments or condos being built. But the retail space in these buildings could presumably be occupied by something other than the usual tenants if the town’s alcohol licensing regulations are welcoming enough.
The review team will examine the tone of current policies. This could get into what the town’s tolerance is for having a “bar license” in Natick vs. tweaking the policy language, Joseph said.
Others would like to see the town review its rules around the number of seats required by an establishment to qualify for certain licenses.
Vincent Rando of Ziti’s Italian Trattoria says “I’d really like it if the town changed the policy regarding seating capacity for a full liquor license. Currently the town requires 100 seats to be able to apply for a full liquor license. I can’t fit the 100 sears here so the best I can do is a beer, wine and cordials license.”
Nearby, Wellesley has gradually reduced the number of seats required for alcohol licenses to less than 50, and a restaurant called Laughing Monk will be the first to take advantage of that this year with a 20-seat business. Wellesley has been updating other alcohol license rules as well in order to attract new restaurants, and it seems to be working based on the fact that a handful of places are set to open in coming months in Linden Square and Wellesley Square.
Natick resident Kathryn Coughlin sent a letter (embedded below) to the Select Board related to the town’s alcohol policy review. She wrote “In 2016, I investigated opening an enoteca or a ‘tapas and wine bar,’ albeit not a ‘bar’ or tavern as defined in MGL Chapter 138, in downtown Natick. It would be a place where people could socialize over small plates and choose from an extraordinary wine list. The enoteca would offer ¼ and ½ pours of wine, to encourage people to step out of their comfort zone and to learn more about wine…” But she decided not to go forward with the business here after learning more about the town’s alcohol policies, and the possible need to be granted a waiver if the alcohol/food ratio was off.
“I urge the Select Board to simplify the town’s alcohol policy to attract and retain a diverse range of dining options and am happy to volunteer to assist in this matter,” she added.
Joseph tells us the Select Board now “is looking at everything relating to alcohol, including training requirements for servers/sellers of alcohol—for example, due to COVID, we have relaxed the requirement for in-person TIPS training and have allowed virtual—so might we consider making this s permanent change?”
While looking at desires for new rules, the town will also consider the risks and public safety aspects of changing its alcohol licensing policies, Joseph says.
The review crew plans to reach out to local and prospective business owners to find out what’s working and not, and to the public as well via Natick Center Associates. If you’d like to share input on this subject, reach out to Joseph at email@example.com or to the whole Board at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The working group will reconvene this month to review its research and start considering policy edits, with the likelihood of the topic becoming an official Select Board agenda item in the near future.
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