Photo: The Loading Dock’s Fuad Mukarker (left center, arms folded) before the Belmont Board of Selectmen Monday.
At a meeting that grew more impassioned as the night wore on, the owner of a Belmont business came before the Belmont Board of Selectmen on Monday evening, Sept. 19, seeking its approval of a deal that could change the face of alcohol licensing in Belmont for years to come.
Before the three-member board was the unlikely pairing of Fuad Mukarker, the owner of the popular dining location The Loading Dock on Brighton Street and the regional supermarket heavyweight, Star Market, which Mukarker is hoping to transfer his business’ full-liquor license for $400,000 in “compensation.”
Bringing hundreds of signatures and approximately 40 supporters to make passionate pleas allow their “friend and neighbor” to bank nearly half a million dollars for the license the town provided him almost 18 months ago, the selectmen were noticeably wary of possibly creating a precedent of rubber stamping a deal that disregards what the three said is the all-important application process.
“This is not about [Mukarker],” said Mark Paolillo, Selectmen chair who said the board would attempt to help him continue operating the Mediterannian-theme cafe that has received excellent reviews in local media. ‘This is about the applicant [Star Market].”
The town established retail “to provide a license to local business such as the Loading Dock” and not to provide “Star Market with 2,000 sq.-ft. of alcohol sales.”
“So I’m uncomfortable with the transfer,” said Paolillo. “I’m leaning to deny this.”
That did not sit well with some members of the public.
“Can we help out an average small time guy. Can we do the right thing here?” said Stephen Kerins, of Sandrick Road and Precinct 8 Town Meeting member.
After another resident had suggested the board was unfairly targeting the store/cafe, Paolillo lashed out uncharacteristically to the citizen. (He would later apologize via a Facebook posting to the resident.)
While the transfer of a license is a standard business practice across the Commonwealth – last month the Selectmen approved one to the new owner of Vintages in Belmont Center – the issue is the location and who benefits from the transaction.
Full alcohol licenses are coveted by merchants as only two are set aside for retail/store operations in Belmont. The number was purposely limited in an attempt to discourage large retail liquor stores coming to Belmont.
The selectmen said the intention of past town meetings which approved the lifting of the 140-year ban on alcohol in the late 1990s was to use the licenses approved by the state legislature to “create economic diversity in vulnerable communities and not to establish package stores in Belmont,” said Paolillo.
The last time a new license was presented in 2014, Mukarker beat out applications from Waltham-based D&L Liquors and the Craft Beer Cellar of Belmont Center to sell beer, wine and spirits at his store, The Loading Dock, which the Belmont resident transformed from a White Hen Pantry franchise and later an independent convenience store.
Star Market’s attorney Joseph Hanley, a partner at Boston-based McDermott, Quilty & Miller, noted that it is “common custom” for the owner of the license to be “compensated” for the purchase and sale of his license.
A $400,000 lifeline
When he heard the decision, Mukarker said the full liquor license “was like hot lava in my hand; I wanted to get rid of it.”
Mukarker proceeded to reach out to both Foodies – the supermarket slated for a 2017 opening in Belmont Center – and D&L, which the selectmen rejected two years ago, but could not come up with a deal. With limited options before him, Mukarker received a call from Star Market.
Later in the meeting, Mukarker said the transfer “is a crucial thing” and any delay in the conveyance “has a lot of bad implications for the business.”
While for Mukarker, Star and the residents in the audience, the license transfer is a win-win-win for the Loading Dock, the local supermarket, and fans of great meals, the implications of signing off on the deal looks dicier from the other side of the conference table, according to the Selectmen.
One issue that troubled the selectmen was when Hanley told Selectman Sami Baghdady that a list of restrictions placed on the license in 2014 preventing the sale of tobacco products and lottery tickets at the location “do not transfer automatically … with the license.” Hanley attempted to placate the board by saying lottery sales and tobacco products would be sold far from the alcohol area.
Paolillo told Hanley the restrictions have “always been a condition that we have taken in consideration on rewarding all license.”
“I understand your point of not transferring, but if you have watched our public hearings, we have been very consistent with this board in rewarding licenses,” said Paolillo.
Hanley countered by saying that Star would follow each of the standard conditions the selectmen placed on the all-liquor license presented to Foodies including a detailed alcohol sales plan and a ban on the sale of kegs, single bottles and flashing neon lights.
But when it came to lottery and tobacco, “we would ask for, after 25 years, a little bit of flexibility with respect to the current restrictions,” said Hanley. Later, Dolan said the store would drop cigarettes from the store with the transfer.
Mukarker said he understands Star’s reluctance to accept the limitations, saying he lost “over 50 percent” of his customers by giving up his lottery and tobacco businesses, a comment Paolillo found wanting of sympathy.
“You’re saying that we put a burden on you when we granted you this license? That was a huge benefit to you,” said Paolillo.
“If I knew what was going to happen [accepting the license], I would have not even applied for [the all-liquor license],” said Mukarker.
To those who spoke – overwhelmingly for the transfer and in support of Mukarker – any delay in allowing the transaction to take place was threatening the livelihood of a local family and denying the public an opportunity to purchase alcohol in a convenient location.
“This is a no-brainer,” said Erin Lubien of Unity Avenue. “There are things we do in Belmont that are just difficult for business owners. They are families who live here … who employ our people here. You have to do this,” she said to loud applause.
But it appeared a majority of selectmen were unwilling to OK the transfer without further discussion and input from more residents and businesses.
“We need to continue the hearing and talk to Star Market some more,” said Williams.
Mukarker’s attorney Thomas Orlandi informed the board of his client’s displeasure for not voting immediately to approve the transfer, noting “you are elected officials” not to ignore the people in the gallery and the numerous signatures in support.
“We also represent the entire community,” said Paolillo.
After Williams had explained the delay, Orlandi said that considerable amount of money had been spent by Star Market on architectural designs while Mukarker needs the transfer funds to continue his business.
“How can you rely on the transfer [funds] when it hasn’t been approved?” wondered Williams. “I think as a matter of business practice, you should not rely on an approval unless you have it.”
As Orlandi and Williams bickered, the public began chiming in and the meeting came close to resembling a cable news debate. Paolillo then stepped forward to tell everyone to “calm down.”
With everything that needed to be said, the Selectmen scheduled an additional meeting on Oct. 3 to finalize a decision on the possible transfer.