Raise a Glass

Councilor Michelle Wu led the charge for lifting the ban on BYOB in Boston. (Photo Credit: Boston Globe)

Councilor Michelle Wu led the charge for lifting the ban on BYOB in Boston. (Photo Credit: Boston Globe)

The Boston City Council gets fun and frugal with BYOB

Tired of waiting for your favorite neighborhood restaurant to pony up the cash for a liquor license? Grab a bottle and listen up, because the Boston City Council has a solution.

Councilors voted unanimously last week to end the longstanding ban on Bring Your Own Bottle (BYOB) policies in certain neighborhood restaurants. At-Large Councilors Michelle Wu and Stephen Murphy first proposed lifting the ban in February, when they introduced an ordinance amending the city code. Their work sparked a spirited public debate culminating in a public hearing with residents, businesses, and city officials earlier this month.

“My goal for this as a former small business owner — given how much restaurants contribute to the economy but how tough of a business it is, with very tight margins — is to give other small business owners a jumpstart,” said Councilor Wu. A former restaurant owner herself, Wu has made small business development a key issue during her time on the Council.

Outgoing Councilor Murphy agreed. “This will help diversify neighborhood business districts in the outlying sections of the city that could use additional anchor businesses,” he told his colleagues before the vote. The BYOB ordinance marks a final victory for the veteran city councilor, who was defeated for re-election in November by political newcomer Annissa Essaibi-George.

The sponsors also thanked Councilor Michael Flaherty for chairing a lengthy hearing regarding the ordinance in the Committee on Government Operations. Numerous diners, activists, and restaurateurs testified how the new rules would make their lives easier and their evenings more enjoyable. Even officials from the Walsh Administration voiced their approval, a rare show of unconditional support from both sides of City Hall.

Though the city Licensing Board is responsible for producing final BYOB regulations, the Council ordinance outlined some ideas worth exploring. For example, they suggested limiting the practice to restaurants outside downtown to help address the longstanding imbalance between neighborhoods. Councilors also recommended limiting BYOB to establishments with thirty or fewer seats to bolster competition against larger restaurants that could afford traditional liquor licenses.

Under the proposed regulations, diners would be limited to one bottle of wine or one six-pack of beer per two participating customers. Authorized restaurants could charge corkage fees and would need to renew their BYOB licenses annually alongside adequate liquor license insurance policies. The sponsors noted that similar rules have worked well in other municipalities throughout the Commonwealth.

Advocates and business owners cheered the ordinance, but others had reservations. The state currently caps the number of liquor licenses available to municipalities and requires legislative approval for more, a practice many have deemed parochial and potentially abusive. Boston in particular has never received enough licenses to meet skyrocketing demand.

Councilor Ayanna Pressley has spent years pushing Beacon Hill for greater local control, and she worried state legislators would use BYOB as an excuse to brush off her demands. “Every neighborhood in the City of Boston deserves equal access to a full range of amenities,” she told the Council, “but I don’t want this to become the only option [for neighborhood restaurants].” Pressley ultimately joined her colleagues in supporting the ordinance.

A spokesperson for Mayor Walsh pledged to “launch a thorough and robust community process in 2016” to explore and ultimately implement BYOB in Boston. It’s an encouraging step for a city so often reluctant to embrace change, energy, and excitement. Now we just need the infrastructure and public services to match.

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