The combination of Wellesley’s high rents and loosening-yet-still-strict alcohol rules makes it difficult for entrepreneurs to even consider opening cool new restaurants here.
“You’re charging Boston rents… and [you’ve got] Wellesley regulations,” says Wellesley resident Jeremy Sewall, the chef/owner of Boston’s Row 34 restaurant.. “Those are really things that don’t always add up.”
Sewell spoke during a well-timed panel discussion (recording embedded below) on “Nurturing Wellesley’s Restaurant Scene” orchestrated by the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber. The Chamber which has been stepping up its Wellesley focus, brought together restauranteurs and reps from Wellesley town government and the real estate industry.
Chamber President Greg Reibman kicked off the panel with a general discussion of the restaurant scene in light of the pandemic (it’s looking up, there’s a long road ahead as people gauge their returns to indoor dining, restaurants face challenges with hiring staff in light of reduced public transportation and other issues).
But where it really got interesting was when restauranteurs talked about their hopes and dreams, and what it might take for Wellesley to become a more restaurant-friendly town. Wellesley’s Select Board on Monday, March 22 will discuss Article 21, which would reduce the number of seats below 50 required for a restaurant to get an alcohol license (See also: “Nearly half of Wellesley’s available restaurant alcohol licenses are gathering dust”). Just how far below 50 remains to be seen.
Sewell says Article 21 would be a necessary step, confirming for Reibman that not being able to get an alcohol license as a restaurant would be a “non-starter.” But Sewell, who hasn’t found a way to make the math work on opening a restaurant here, added that plenty of other hurdles remain if Wellesley wants to attract a greater diversity of restaurants. This would include addressing the “cringe-worthy” intent-to-dine rules (needing to order food to buy an alcoholic beverage) and restrictions on bar seats, among other things.
“Today’s restaurant model is not what it was 10, 20, 30 years ago,” he says. One suggestion he has for the town, which has been reluctant to have straight-out bars, is to come up with rules that would specify limits on food vs. alcohol revenue, say 60%-40%, or whatever Wellesley deems appropriate. Another idea would be to have town employees who can really handhold possible new restaurant owners through the entire tangle of Wellesley rules in order to succeed, he says. Without creative thinking, it will continue to be easier to run restaurants in neighboring communities.
Jay Spencer, who owns French Press Bakery & Cafe in one of those communities, says his business benefited from Needham becoming more flexible with its alcohol licensing and related rules. His team closed a pricier and bigger bistro, and focused instead on its popular small cafe, which has a total of 25 indoor/outdoor seats, once that establishment was able to sell alcoholic beverages. “Having food and beer and wine together gives you a different level of service and gives you a different level of profitability,” he says. “And you need that for survival.”
Wellesley’s restrictions not only block potential newcomers but cramp the style of existing Wellesley retailers like Wasik’s Cheese Shop, which got a license to sell beer and wine for off-premises consumption back in 2014. Brad Wasik says his family has toyed with expanding beyond its retail shop and opening a small cheese-and-wine tapas bar with far fewer than 50 seats, but the rule limiting bar seats to 10% of overall capacity is a killer if you have a small place and want to maximize your occupancy.
Laura Wolfe, who along with husband John own The Cottage and the new Wellesley Tavern, doesn’t want Wellesley to become overrun with restaurants, not that that’s close to happening under current conditions. She says there is plenty of room for more of them to revitalize the town.
“Wellesley’s got too many vacancies, and we need retail to come back, we need little boutique restaurants to come back…,” she says. “Just to create that sort of intimacy Wellesley had when I grew up in town and all the stores were busy and it was really a great destination.”