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Local Restaurant Owners Want a Seat at the Bar

Prices have not been set for liquor license sales, but local restaurateurs are ready to start the bidding.

Patrons of Ponte Vecchio, the restaurant located in New Providence's , don’t have to travel any further than the inn’s front desk for a bottle of wine to go with dinner.

Bill Boyle, owner of Boyle Hotels and Best Western PLUS Murray Hill Inn and Suites, said the inn does have a retail wine license arrangement through Amalthea Cellars, which is a certified New Jersey winery that has won international competitions. While that relationship has worked out well for the inn, Boyle said he would like to expand it by purchasing a liquor license.

“We have very much enjoyed that relationship [with Amalthea Cellars]. But to have a license that would allow us to offer our guests a wider array of wine, beer, whatever, that’s obviously a benefit to the guest experience at the Murray Hill Inn,” Boyle said. “If the opportunity continues to present itself, we will definitely be making an application.”

With voters approving the November referendum to allow the borough to sell liquor licenses, Boyle is that much closer to making more alcoholic purchases a reality at the inn's restaurant. Now it's up to Borough Council to move the process forward.

In New Jersey, a hotel with more than 100 rooms can obtain a liquor license independent of the town, according to Borough Attorney Carl Woodward’s comments at the Nov. 14 council meeting. But Boyle said it is his understanding, even with that provision, that a borough can still restrict a hotel with 100 rooms or more from gaining that license if the town is a dry town. The Murray Hill Inn currently has 76 rooms, Boyle said.

“That’s one of the reasons why we haven’t pursued it because we received the understanding from the borough that they would oppose that,” Boyle said. “We do not have in our plans currently building of additional rooms, but at one time we did. That was one of the motivations and once we realized that would not be possible, we retracted. Right now, it’s not in our plans [to expand the hotel]. I’m not saying that direction might not happen. It depends upon circumstances going forward.”

According to a League of Women Voters' document, distributed at the in October, opponents of the referendum believe “the income from license sales is not worth the risk of negative changes to our town. Given the current economic climate, the sale income to the town per license is likely to be much below the Summit transaction in 2006.”

Summit, which has nine consumption liquor licenses, sold a license for $500,000 in 2006. Still, a license could be sold into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and it will ultimately be up to council to set the minimum price.

Although the Borough Council has not taken any formal action or set a minimum price for a liquor license yet, Boyle said he plans to participate in whatever bidding process is set up to obtain a license.

“Our plan is to participate in that process and obviously, it doesn’t need to be said that if circumstances were onerous to such an extent that the opening bid was beyond what we thought it was worth, we would certainly retract,” Boyle said. “But those things are obvious. Our intention right now is we would like to apply and we’re very interested in gaining a license.”

The same is true for Lena Chen and her husband Bifeng Liu who own . They are interested in purchasing a license, but say price will be a factor in their decision.

Chen, who has owned the restaurant for six years with Liu, said they plan to expand it in the next few months. The existing space would be for take-out and a 2,500-square-foot addition would be dining room space. The owners are planning to add a sushi bar as well as different menu options.

Chen thinks her restaurant and others in town are losing business by not selling liquor. If she had a license for her business, customers could either bring or buy liquor with their dinner. But by selling liquor, Chen believes she could make more money.

Obtaining a liquor license may not come cheap, however. During a in October, Councilman Rob Munoz there hasn’t been any discussions yet as to what the minimum price would be. “But given the current economic times, it would seem prudent to maybe do a study and find out what licenses have sold in other towns before we figure out what we would set [our bid price at].” But again, Summit sold a liquor license for $500K in 2006, the most recent license sold in the area.  

Council discussions on liquor licenses will likely not begin until after the new council is seated early next year, according to Borough Administrator Doug Marvin. Obtaining a license will be like any other bidding process in the borough, he added.

“Often times when we go out to bid, we’re looking for the lowest price on an item for buying a new truck or something like that. We look for the lowest price. But in this particular case, we’d be looking for the highest price,” Marvin said. “I’m not exactly sure of the logistics of how this would work but basically the bidders would submit their sealed bid to the borough council by a specific date in time and then typically, those bids are opened by the borough clerk and a report is created as to who the bids are and the amount of the bids, and then it would go to council.”

A license would then go to the highest qualified bidder, and a “qualified bidder” would have to have a business model that meets the borough’s standards.

“If they are the successful bidder and the business fits, then they would go through the normal process of starting a business in New Providence, which they have to deal with the building department, acquire space, and all of those sorts of things,” Marvin said. “[If an existing business is the successful bidder], they would have to come in with a plan that demonstrates that at least a certain percentage of their business is going to deal with food service in addition to a bar. In other words, they couldn’t come in and just say, ‘Well, we’re going to take this restaurant here and we’re just going to make it a bar.’ That wouldn’t fit in the ordinances that are being considered.’”

Several business owners said they would need to see the complete ordinance and all bidding requirements, as well as the price, before deciding on whether to place a bid for a liquor license or not, including Jimmy Vardas (), Jimmy Wang (), and Jose Brid ().

Others, however, say they are not the least bit interested.

"I probably wouldn’t [purchase one] anyway, but not at a high price,” said Angelo Gencarelli, owner of . “It’s an added headache. You have to spend more on insurance. Do you really need it here? It’s a pizzeria restaurant, and if I buy a liquor license [for a high price], I have to make it up somehow."

Sal Coppola, who has owned for 26 years, said he thinks the town will make money from the sale of licenses, but would not be interested in purchasing one.

“My business is not big enough in order to have a liquor license, plus we already have a liquor store in the shopping center,” Coppola said. “The space is not big enough to have a liquor license.”

Coppola said many of his customers, both New Providence residents and customers from out of town, bring in their own liquor when they come to dine at his restaurant.

John Sovis, owner of with his wife, also said he’s not interested in purchasing a license, mainly because the licenses will likely be sold at high prices.

“I couldn’t say right now, ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I’d probably say more ‘no.’ It’s always subject to price, number one. Second, what are the guidelines? I probably wouldn’t have any room to have a bar,” Sovis said. “What I would be interested in is wine, number one, and [serving a selection of beer].”

Sovis said many of his customers also bring in their own liquor, usually wine, and he has wine glasses to accommodate those customers.

Aside from existing businesses, there are entrepreneurs and area business owners who have expressed interest in New Providence and have previously asked about liquor licenses.

Joe Savino, owner of , said many individuals have spoken with him in recent years about opening a new restaurant in town.

“I’ve had several people come talk to me in the last few years who would like to put restaurants into this downtown and wanted to know the status of where the liquor licenses stood,” Savino said. “[Those people include owners of] outside businesses from other areas [and] Realtors who were looking to help rent properties. Specifically this one restaurant was very interested and came to me multiple times, and had there been a liquor license, he would’ve taken the entire old McGrath’s building [on Springfield Avenue] and put a sit-down restaurant in it.”

Savino declined to name the individuals or restaurant owners but said he’s optimistic they’ve been following the liquor license process and will be back.

When asked if he thinks there’s at least one business owner out there interested in setting up a sit-down restaurant in New Providence, he said, “I know there is. There was one who came and spoke to me every couple of months wanting to know the status of it.”

WHAT COULD LICENSES BRING?

So if a high-end restaurant opens in New Providence, how will other restaurant owners in surrounding towns feel about it?

Thomas Egan, manager of Roots Steak House in Summit, said he thinks New Providence will benefit from restaurants serving liquor.

“It’s going to create more jobs, more revenue for the town and it’s a good thing,” Egan said. “In New Jersey, with the way it works, I don’t think there are enough liquor licenses. It’s very hard to get [one] and it really limits a business’ chance for survival so I think it’s a very positive thing that [they passed the referendum and may get liquor licenses].”

Ilir Bitici, who has owned Florino’s Restaurant in Summit since 1996, agrees.

“I think it would invite more restaurants and more businesses, and will probably create competition. Competition is good because it separates the good from the bad,” Bitici said. “As far as my perspective as a restaurant owner, I don’t have any issues with that at all. I definitely commend the people of New Providence who pushed that [referendum] through. I know they were working hard on that and that’s a very productive way to raise revenues.”

Egan agreed that new restaurants serving liquor in New Providence would help attract more business to the general area and he doesn’t think it will necessarily hurt the BYOB restaurants.

“With all the BYOBs out there, people have a choice on what they want to do, no matter what, so it really comes down to a restaurant executing and making people want to come in,” Egan said. “So I don’t think whether [New Providence] has liquor licenses or not will really affect it that much.”

As for the existing liquor stores, owners say they don’t expect licenses to hurt their businesses.

Gary Golombek, owner of since 1975, said he supports what borough residents want.

“My thing is if something’s up for a vote and the town’s people go for it, I’m for it,” he said. “I totally believe in the democratic process. I didn’t vote because I was kind of ambivalent about the whole thing. One side of me is excited and one side of me was thinking, ‘Hmm, is that going to be bad for business?’ But if the town’s for it, I’m for it.”

Golombek said he would be worried about the current restaurant owners who do not obtain a liquor license.

“My concern is they’ve been working in the town for quite a long time and is the new competition going to hurt them? It won’t hurt me as much as it might hurt a current restaurant,” he said. “Even though that’s not really my business and even though I don’t belong to the Chamber of Commerce and all of that, it would be unfortunate to see somebody whose having a hard time be put out of business completely because a new bar and restaurant opened up.”

Stan Dunn, who purchased in 1971 and co-owns the store Jim Gibbons, said as a liquor store owner, liquor licenses really won’t make that much difference for his business.

“If it brings business into town, that’s good. It’s not going to affect my present business because I don’t have that kind of business now. If a restaurant comes in, gets a liquor license and sells drinks, I don’t have that business now,” he said. “It’s not going to take away from the business I already have. The people going to the restaurants and bringing their stuff into the present restaurants, I’m still going to have. It’s not going to reduce my business. What could happen is if a good restaurant comes into town and it didn’t have a license, my business would grow. It’s not going to decrease my business; it’s going to stifle the growth of my business by having a new restaurant in town."

THE LIQUOR LICENSE PROCESS

Marvin said no official action has been scheduled regarding the liquor licenses because ordinances have to be introduced and adopted within the same calendar year. Therefore, he said the Jan. 23 council meeting would be the earliest time that any formal action would begin.

Currently, the Planning Board is working on a draft ordinance to deal with the restrictions that would be placed on the type of establishments where liquor licenses would be used, Marvin said. A draft has been completed and has been made available to the council.

Marvin said it’s likely that there will be two ordinances — one setting forth the restrictions, as mentioned above, and one actually allowing for the sale of liquor licenses.

“We still need to get some advice from our borough attorney on that and he’s going to be checking with the Alcoholic Beverages Control because the law can be somewhat complicated and we want to make sure we get it right,” Marvin said. “So he’s going to check with the ABC, he’s going to work on some draft ordinances with myself and a couple other members of council so we can get something before the rest of the council to consider.”

At the Nov. 14 council meeting, Borough Attorney Carl Woodward said he was in contact with the ABC because they have unique expertise and there are two ways of issuing liquor licenses.

“There is the old way, which is called the historical method, in which case you just say you’re going to issue them and someone comes in and they pay what the annual fee is, which is like $2,500 and they get their license,” Woodward said. “The new way, which is used almost exclusively, [is where] licenses are actually put up for auction or bid. So what you have to do in that process is the governing body, once the ordinances are in place, adopts a resolution indicating its intent to issue a liquor license. Now remember, you have up to four that you can issue. You have a decision to make as to how many you issue. You don’t have to do them all at once. You can start with one and see how it goes.”

After that resolution is adopted, a notice would be published, indicating the borough’s intent to issue a license through a public bidding process, Woodward said. That notice has to be published no less than two times, cannot be less than one week apart, and 30 days must be allowed between the last publication and the date of the sale.

“So it’s going to take at least a couple of months before you’re receiving bids,” Marvin said. “Once you do that, and as part of that resolution, you’re basically setting forth the standards that would apply to the person or entity that acquires that license; The type of bidder, statement that the bids would be sealed, there will be a minimum bid requirement or other bidding provisions such as deposit requirements, when payment of the balance is due, other specific requirements, as I’ve said, that will come out of our own ordinances, such as the requirements for the type of facility at which the license could be used.”

Like any other bidding process, the date, time and place where bids can be received would also be noted.

Spokesman Zach Hosseini says the ABC has very limited involvement when municipalities write ordinances that allow for the sale of liquor licenses. Instead, they will offer their opinion to a municipality if asked for it.

One requirement from the ABC is that a licensee must undergo a very thorough background check.

“They provide us with financial documents that tell us everyone who has an interest in the license and the business that the license is in, and that’s a very thorough process,” he said.

RESTRICTIONS AND PROVISIONS FOR A POTENTIAL LIQUOR LICENSEE

At the Liquor Consumption Licenses Referendum Forum in October, several residents raised questions regarding the type of establishment that could be sold a liquor license and whether or not those establishments would have certain restrictions, such as the hours of operation.

Councilman Rob Munoz, one of the three panelists, said the current draft ordinance in place would only allow for a restaurant with an attached bar. In addition, he said the council has asked the Planning Board to consider certain restrictions when addressing the appropriate zoning ordinance and regulations.

“Those zoning regulations can restrict the hours of operation, the seats at the bar, how big the bar can be compared to the rest of the dining facility,” Munoz said. “We can prohibit there from being happy hours, for example, or drink specials so, yes, we can regulate what’s going to happen when these licenses are sold.”

Munoz also said under the current draft ordinance, restaurants would be required to prove that at least 50 percent of their revenue comes from food sales in order to limit the amount of alcohol sold and the restaurant would be required to have a minimum seating capacity of 25 tables.

Restaurants that have service bars could also be considered, Munoz said, where customers can order drinks and have them delivered to their table by their server. 

“We could certainly do that. I know the draft ordinance that we have has a provision for service bars, but it also has a provision for a bar area attached to the restaurant,” Munoz said. “But I just want to be clear that if there is a bar area attached to the restaurant, we don’t want to have a bar or a lounge in town. We want to have a restaurant so that if there’s a bar area, they would have to serve the full food menu that the restaurant serves.”

So how do current business owners feel about restrictions being placed on a potential liquor licensee? Most think the restrictions are needed and will only protect the community.

Bill Ferdinand of said he thinks there should be a time element put on how long a restaurant serving liquor should stay open and it wouldn't be a bad idea to limit happy hours.

"It’s a huge step, but let’s take baby steps from this point on. Let’s make it so that everyone’s happy,” he said.

Michelle Brunner, President of the New Providence Business and Professional Association and co-owner of , said she thinks provisions should be in place to put the minds of residents at ease.

“Everyone’s biggest fear was that you’re going to get some bar that was going to bring in a less-than-stellar crowd and they’d be drinking until 3 a.m., getting in their cars and driving home. So that was what we were also trying to get out there to the public,” Brunner said. “We had a forum that said we’re going to sell liquor licenses, but we’re also going to say these are the requirements and any business that wants to come in has to go before the Planning Board. It’s very important for the residents to have that comfort and piece of mind to know that it’s going to be the right type of business.”

So now that we’ve learned about the in New Providence and , be sure to check back tomorrow when we’ll hear what your fellow residents think of the referendum passing and liquor licenses potentially coming to the borough.

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