Wellesley has many beloved and frequented restaurants, some of which sell booze and some of which don’t. But town officials recognize that it could boost Wellesley’s economy and energize its dining scene if even more restaurants could be encouraged to open here.
Among the possible Annual Town Meeting articles being discussed is one that would reduce the number of restaurant seats required for an establishment to apply for a license to serve alcohol from 50 to 30 or even 25. This could appeal to smaller existing restaurants and attract the sorts of boutique restaurants that residents often need to head out of town to find currently.
Wellesley Executive Director Meghan Jop said during this week’s regular Select Board meeting that the town has the authority to issue 29 all-alcohol and 6 beer-and-wine licenses, but that 16 of those aren’t being used (Wellesley also has licenses for clubs, like Wellesley Country Club, and grocery stores.)
Wellesley voters in 2012 approved the reduction in seats required to apply for an alcohol license from 100 to 50, but Takara is the only eatery in town to take advantage of that rule since then.
The question is whether restaurants with between 30 and 50 seats might be game for applying for alcohol licenses if they qualified. This could include businesses like Cafe Mangal, Old School Pizzeria, Coconut Thai, and potentially newcomers.
Board member Beth Sullivan Woods and Assistant Executive Director Amy Frigulietti have reached out to restaurant owners and landlords in town, as well as the the president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber, to get feedback on this topic. They’ve also been researching the latest practices in other communities.
“[T]here really is a trend moving towards smaller restaurants,” Frigulietiti said during the Select Board meeting. It’s not just smaller restaurants, but more of a mix, from taco shops to bistros serving high quality food from new chefs, she said. “They’re just looking for a small footprint to do that work,” she said.
In talking to landlords, the town is finding that Wellesley is missing out on opportunities to fill vacant storefronts, since its regulations don’t fit with restaurants’ plans. Not to mention that taxes and rents are high, and business restrictions exist such as requiring patrons to buy food if they want alcohol (aka, “intent to dine”).
“You’re seeing a move out of the cities and people are looking as they come out into the suburbs for… small restaurant experiences and not traveling so far,” Sullivan Woods said. “So we are losing our residents going to other communities to dine.”
Research continues into this issue, including whether the magic number for restaurants seats is 30 or something else.
Board member Colette Aufranc commented that from her research into how other communities handle liquor licenses she has seen that they really treat them as an essential element of economic development. “I think this is one of the tools in our toolbox that we can use to help our downtown,” she said, noting that alcohol sales are a proven way for businesses to improve their profit margins. Increased restaurant sales wouldn’t hurt the town’s coffers either, she said.
The proposal to reduce the number of seats required to serve alcohol was not intended to change the town’s current rules requiring patrons to buy food if they want to consume alcohol on premises, Sullivan Woods emphasized. But discussion of the proposal at the board meeting did expand into a broader one.
Board Chair Marjorie Freiman said she understands the appeal of attracting small cozy restaurants, but said something about all of this doesn’t add up and that she’d like to hear more. Among other things, she wonders why more restaurants haven’t applied for licenses at the 50-seat-and-above-level.
“I would also like to know where this is all headed as a package deal (sorry for the pun),” she said. “But I’d like to know what the plan is for this writ large, as opposed to doing it incrementally. Because if that’s the objective, to get rid of ‘intent to dine,’ and have places where people can just have a snack and drink, I would like to know, and I think we should be transparent about it…”
Board member Tom Ulfelder also raised the issue of how any such changes could also affect the town’s development agreement with Linden Square property manager Federal Reality, and the mix of restaurants allowed there. Freiman followed with: “I think we need to look at how it would impact every class of establishment that can, or may, serve alcohol.”
This entire discussion might invite the town to revisit the “intent to dine” rule in town that requires patrons to order food if they want to order drinks. This restriction has put the kibosh on possible business ventures in town, said Jop, including an Eataly-like outfit at The Belclare and a Kings-like entertainment venue where the VW dealership operates.
“As models have sort of evolved, we can’t accommodate those business models. So it is something I would say the board should consider because there are a lot of models out there…,” she said. “I’ve said it before, Economic Development… 101 the #1 rule: When in doubt, add alcohol.”
Jop said you could have imagined having a craft beer truck hunker down at the Shared Streets parklet the town set up over the summer at Clocktower Park, giving people an option to grab a brew to go along with food from nearby restaurants that don’t serve alcohol. “You could imagine it anywhere else but here,” she said.
This all goes back to gauging the public’s appetite from moving further away from the town’s historically conservative approach to alcohol sales.
Though as Sullivan Woods noted, at least for now, due to state rules during the pandemic, everyone is operating on an intent to dine basis. “So it’s not as abnormal as it was a year ago,” she said, and that makes it “not as bad” for property owners to market Wellesley to restaurants.
The Select Board is looking to sign the Annual Town Meeting warrant on Jan. 25, so it will be determined then whether the article on seat reductions will go to Town Meeting.