Why should a small restaurant need the same license as a downtown giant?

By Haley Hamilton

I owe somebody money. I must, because I’ve lost a bet. I agreed with something Bob Luz, CEO and president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association (MRA), had to say.

The MRA is the local branch of the National Restaurant Association — that’s right, the other NRA — a coalition of (largely) business owners and higher-ups in the restaurant industry with a lobbying record nearly as slimy as that of the gun-toting nationalists who are most often associated with the acronym.

The NRA I’m talking about here favors things like tips counting toward wages, which enables the two-tiered wage system in which those who work for tips are merely paid $2.13/hour federally (in Mass, the hourly wage of tipped employees is $3.75). The group has also been impressively unresponsive to the fact that sexual harassment is rampant in the restaurant industry (according to a report by the Restaurant Opportunity Center, two-thirds of women working in restaurants have experienced sexual harassment), and has successfully enabled legislation that prohibits municipalities from voting on paid sick leave for restaurant staffers in nine states.

Right now in Boston, the MRA is fighting to keep the City Council from approving legislation that would allow more liquor licenses to be available to aspiring restaurateurs and bar owners.

The arguments against this measure, designed to bolster economic and cultural growth in the corners of Boston that need the most boosting, are disgusting. If you want to witness privilege at its most unbearable, envision a well-funded force of well-off white men complaining that allowing new applicants — many of whom are women, people of color, immigrants, and in general those who have been locked out of the lucrative side of the hospitality industry while toiling in low-wage positions — to obtain liquor licenses at a hardship prices will spoil their business. As if the rest of us can’t see that downtown thrives while the neighborhoods lag.

The argument for adding licenses to the Hub’s historically shortchanged restaurant industry is simple: If you make those permits affordable, more people who actually live in or near or care about underserved neighborhoods like Mattapan, Dorchester, and Hyde Park will be able to to open local establishments. Which will bolster walkable amenities, attract customers from other parts of town and beyond Boston, and make for a better overall quality of life for locals.

The argument against is, basically, But that’s not fair!

I digress… I agreed with Luz during a recent industry stakeholders meeting at Boston City Hall. As the discussion between Luz, local restaurant owners, Boston Licensing Board Chair Christine Pulgini, and the City Council’s Committee on Government Operations (made up of Councilor Ayanna Pressley, Chairman Michael Flaherty, and Boston’s Chief of Economic Development John Barrows, among others) commented back and forth, highlighting needs for language changes to the legislation and voicing concerns over provisions, the issue of the influx of competition from the proposed 182 new licenses (available over three years) arose.

“We are so short on help right now it is a crisis point,” Luz said. “If all of a sudden we increase the number of establishments, we won’t be able to staff what we have.”

He continued, saying conversations like the one at City Hall “always look at the number of licenses, not the number of seats… Maybe we should look at the number of seats.”

And there, ladies and gentlemen, is where my mouth fell open and I had to (briefly) reconsider everything I knew about the MRA.

Holy shit, I thought. I agree with something Bob Luz says about liquor licenses. Because, on this point at least, he’s right.

Almost every new restaurant built in Boston is enormous. The number of seats is outrageous, the number of servers needed to cover them ridiculous. Places like that have two bars, doubling the number of bartenders. I don’t even want to think about what a kitchen in that kind of joint would need to run, and then there is support staff.

The shortage of eligible people to staff these places, and everywhere else in the city, is, like Luz said, a crisis.

Some of that has to do with construction: Boston isn’t New York City, where the bottom floors of apartment buildings and offices are typically retail spaces and restaurants. In order to add new things in Boston, we have to wait for an existing spot to close and be repurposed, or build new establishments entirely. Just to cover these costs, and the costs of overpriced liquor licenses.

And it’s killing us.

Ask anyone who works in a restaurant and they’ll tell you: We. Are. So. Short. Staffed. Opening three new places with 200 seats, like a majority of spaces in the Seaport, is the equivalent of opening 10 new, reasonably sized restaurants.

So, yes; I agreed with the CEO of the MRA on something.

If Boston is going to make it easier for more restaurants to open in the city, there need to be regulations on how big they can be. This discourages giant corporate chains from setting up shop in the Hub, incentivizes folks to use existing city retail space creatively, and gives the ranks of hospitality professionals a chance to catch up.

These comments were well-received by the committee, and while it will be some time before we hear anything about changes made to the proposed petition, there may very well be a looming compromise based around limiting the number of seats in a new establishment.

Although, you know: If the MRA would quit lobbying so hard against increasing the tipped minimum wage, and restaurants were required to pay their staff better, I bet we wouldn’t have such a staff shortage.

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