Photo: Chris Benoit, owner of The Spirited Gourmet in Cushing Square.
You can not tell the tale of bringing alcohol to Belmont without talking about The Spirited Gourmet and the Benoits, as it was Chris and his then wife Elena who were at the forefront of turning Belmont from one of the last “dry” towns in the Commonwealth into one where a residents could buy a beer or bottle of wine within the borders of the “Town of Homes.”
“My ex-wife and I were responsible for bringing licenses to town,” said Chris Benoit, who worked in high tech before creating stores in Winchester in 2004 and Belmont in 2007.
“Customers from Belmont would come to our store in Winchester and say, ‘What a great place. I’d be nice to have something like this in Belmont.'” The selectmen visited the store, his ex-wife made a presentation at the 2006 Town Meeting, the town voters in 2007 approved three licenses, and the Benoit’s got the all-alcohol license.
“Pretty straight forward,” he said.
And for the past decade, Benoit has devoted his life to the busy street front store at 448 Common St. in Cushing Square which led the early revitalization of one of Belmont’s four commercial centers.
“We have seen ourselves as being an anchor attracting business to this area. Compare the square today compared to when we first opened, it’s radically different,” he said. “So we kept our promise with the residents to spur economic activity.”
But it has been far from smooth sailing since opening the store.
“I’m here Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., invested a tremendous amount of money as well as my time. I’ve had to use a good chunk of my 401K to get past cash flow issues. It’s terrible because not only is it your retirement, you get penalized for taking the money,” he said.
“But you do what you have to do to stay in business,” said Benoit.
But in the past week, Benoit believes his business and the residents are facing a challenge to the cozy environment of local alcohol sales with the attempt by the owner of The Loading Dock retail store and restaurant to sell his all-alcohol license for $400,000 in compensation to Star Market which is looking to add a 2,000 sq.-ft. “liquor operation” to its Waverley Square store.
The Board of Selectmen which heard the request on Sept. 19 postponed a possible vote until Oct. 6.
“When I first heard about this from one of my managers, I thought he got the details wrong. It just seemed to come out of nowhere,” said Benoit. But it took only a few hours for the Somerville residents to set fingers to keyboard.
In an email letter sent to customers and the public, Benoit wrote a statement he believes reflects the feeling of the majority of residents and business owners in Belmont.
“Allowing the license transfer to Shaws/Star Market will hurt this business financially and would not be in the spirit of why these licenses were created, for economic development,” said Benoit. (See the complete letter below)
“I’m not a cold-hearted person, and feel for Mr. [Faud] Mukarker [owner of The Loading Dock], but why should current license holders be penalized for his lack of planning and/or financial resources?” wrote Benoit.
It takes a while to build your business and become profitable especially with alcohol sales, and I don’t think the Loading Dock thought he could lose money selling liquor, said Benoit.
“Being successful doesn’t come overnight and just because someone gives you a license,” said Benoit.
Benoit has asked his store’s customers and local businesses and residents who question the transfer to attend Thursday’s Board of Selectmen meeting (7 p.m., Town Hall)
The Belmontonian interviewed Benoit at this store in Cushing Square.
Q: When you heard about the proposed transfer?
A: The first time I heard about it was Tuesday evening, the day after the meeting. I had no knowledge of this transfer up until then. The town isn’t obligated to inform licensees that this is going on although they are required to post a notice in the ‘paper. I never saw it, and likely the reason is that [the newspaper] don’t typically put it in place where everyone can find it.
Q: And what was your initial reaction?
A: I was not very happy (laughing). When you read that a major supermarket chain wants to take 2,000 sq.-ft. of their space dedicated to a liquor store and invest $2.4 million and they are less than a mile from you, that’s pretty scary as every other license holder.
Q: How would a license at Star Market effect your business?
A: As I said to many people, the issue is that there’s only so much business to be had when you are offering alcohol sales. So there’s a certain financial pie and that pie isn’t getting any bigger for people who shop locally. Let’s say someone from the South Shore were to come by here and say, ‘What a beautiful store’ but they are not coming back because they have something close to them. So when you put something in your backyard, customers are going to be interested and shop there.
I took a hit when a small guy like Art’s Specialties (across Trapelo Road from the Studio Cinema) or when a store opened in Waltham, it’s just more competition in an already saturated market. So at a certain point, the little guys won’t be able to withstand that level of competition and they’ll go out of business while the chains that can sustain it with their financial resources will be the only ones left standing.
Q: What wrong with a transfer?
A: The whole point of licenses was to promote small businesses. Town Meeting didn’t want chains or liquor stores. That’s why when they were first handed out, we got one, the Craft Beer Cellars got the beer and wine license and Vintages [in Belmont Center] the other wine license. And for that time, the three of us work off one another because we emphasize our differences. So we could co-exist and it worked out very well and we brought a lot to the community.
Now the town has added Foodies [a three-store chain based in Boston’s South End that is slated to open in the summer of 2017 in the former Filene’s site in Belmont Center] to the mix. You know that will affect Craft Beer’s sales and Vintages was just sold so the original owner saw the writing on the wall.
I think when Foodies was awarded the license, the board looked at this big empty space since Macy’s moved out which was an eyesore. So putting in a Foodies is sort of economic development, it’s coming at the expense of other license holders within spitting distance of the store. But it’s something where you’re helping to beautify the Town Center and adding value to the residents by giving them another grocery option then just Star or Shaws.
Q: Do you believe your argument against a license transfer to Star has been made more difficult to make since the town granted one to a small chain in Foodies?
A: When the Loading Dock went to get its license, one of the other applicants was D&L Liquors. Part of the reason it was denied is because it had three liquor stores and wanted a fourth. You said no to a chain once, but the next year when Foodies – while a small chain with three stores, it’s still a chain – comes in gets the license.
Unfortunately, a precedent was set last year by giving Foodies a license. This has created a loophole that Star Market is trying to exploit. And with their financial resources and legal team, they can make it difficult for the town.
Q: Two days after the meeting, you wrote an open email letter to your customers and residents which was critical of the attempted transfer. What are you attempting to achieve?
A: Initially I was unaware of the meeting and I don’t think many in town understood what was happening. The Loading Dock’s owner brought his supporters and rallied behind him at the hearing and I totally respect and appreciate what they’re doing. They like the owner and are supporting him. I hope my customers do the same for me.
But the letter was more to let people know what is going on and it seems that no one knows this is happening. These licenses were never intended to go to a store like Star Market. As the Town Meeting and selectmen all said; if Star Market applied, it would be denied a license.
People need to know this because a transfer would have a really big impact. If the town gives Star Market a license, the whole landscape of the town with respect to alcohol purchases is going to be different. Five years from now, all the small stores will be gone, my store could very easily be gone and you’ll be looking at Star Market and Foodies as your two options.
Is that what the people want? I know for a fact that Town Meeting both times didn’t vote to have that kind of thing. They never wanted chains or for supermarkets to have licenses. That is the wish of the residents through Town Meeting. If you give the license to Star Market, that goes against the will of the people and you are heading down a slippery slope. People should be able to come to the meeting saying, “This isn’t right.”
Q: What has been the reaction to your email letter?
A: People are pretty heated about it. The most comments I’ve got is how does someone who doesn’t own the license and has only held it for 18 months could be allowed to make $400,000 off it. That’s what people are scratching their heads about.
I pay $4,000 to the town to operate my business. I don’t own the license. It’s a public good. If I sold this store, the license would stay with it because the operation would lose value. But to be able to take a license and just sell it on its own, that’s just crazy. How do you profit from something that you don’t own just doesn’t make any sense.
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