‘Sooner Than Later’: Lottery Is Returning To Waverley Star Market

Photo: Star Market in Belmont.

“Sooner than later.”

Those were the words of Star Market General Manager and Vice President Steve Duran when asked by the Belmontonian the date Massachusetts Lottery tickets, and card games will be sold at the supermarket’s Waverley Square outlet after the Belmont Board of Selectmen unanimously approved a request by the state’s lottery commission to resume their sale at its board meeting on Monday, Oct. 16.

The approval comes a year after the supermarket chain agreed not to sell lottery tickets as a condition by the board to the transfer of a full retail liquor license for $450,000 from The Loading Zone. The restriction was part of a long-standing practice by the selectmen to decouple the sale of both tobacco and lottery products to retail establishments acquiring any town-issued alcohol license. 

But since the transfer, the state lottery had quietly lobbied the town to reintroduce sales its products. Officials noted the state returned $2.2 million in lottery revenue to Belmont in the 2017 fiscal year in direct local aid. 

The sitting Board of Selectmen earlier this year indicated a willingness to assist the lottery – which has seen activity flatten for the past few years – by returning sales to Belmont locations with retail licenses.

Early Bird Selectmen: Alcohol License Transfer Meeting at 6PM

Photo: Tonight’s meeting is a continuation of one last month.

The Belmont Board of Selectmen is expecting a long night at its Thursday, Oct. 6 meeting having pushed forward by one hour its traditional 7 p.m. start time.

First on the evening’s docket will be the continuation of the Sept. 19 meeting in which the owner of The Loading Dock store/cafe on Brighton Street sought board approval to transfer the all-alcohol retail license he currently holds to Star Market for $400,000 in compensation. The license, one of two provided by the town to sell beer, wine and liquor from a store, would allow Star to build 2,000 sq.-ft. of shelves for liquor sales inside the Waverley Square store. 

While more than 50 supporters of Loading Dock owner Fuad Mukarker urged the board to OK the transfer, the board said at the previous meeting it worries the approval will set precedence where  firms could supersede the required application process by buying licenses from struggling small businesses. 

It is reported that representatives of two license holders, The Spirited Gourmet on Common Street which holds a full alcohol license and Craft Beer Cellars, the growing national franchiser and owner-operator of craft beer stores, which was beaten out for the all-alcohol license in 2014 by Mukarker, will be in attendance.

The board has reserved 90 minutes to the hearing.

The selectmen will also hear a request from a Cambridge sports company which wants to use a few Belmont roads for a half-marathon (13.1 miles) on Sunday, Nov. 13. The roads would be Brighton, Statler, Channing, Leonard and Concord heading back to the People’s Republic. What, not enough roads in Cambridge? 

Q&A: For Spirited Owner, Transferring License Usurps Residents Wishes [VIDEO]

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.

• • • • 

Chris Benoit’s email letter 
On Monday evening there was a meeting held by the Belmont Board of Selectmen and The Loading Dock. Unfortunately, the Town is not obligated to notify other license holders so we were unaware of the meeting. The owner of The Loading Dock is looking to transfer his all alcohol license to Shaws/Star Market in Waverly Square and collect $400,000.
This license, and two retail beer and wine licenses, were created at the 2013 Town Meeting, for the purpose of “economic development”. The Loading Dock was awarded the license in 2014 based on bringing economic development to the Brighton Street section of Belmont. At that hearing, then Selectman, and proponent of Town Meeting Article 15, [than Selectman] Andy Rojas, was quoted as saying “I believe this license would generate economic development in the spirit of why I supported a liquor license in town.” Within two years the owner has decided he needs to have an “off premise”, or restaurant/pouring, license to survive. 
The owner of The Loading Dock has discovered that having an all alcohol retail license isn’t the pot of gold he envisioned. Had my then wife, Elena, and I, who together opened The Spirited Gourmet in 2007, not planned well there would be no Spirited Gourmet. We knew, like for most businesses, that you’re likely going to sustain losses when you’re starting a business and it took us years to get in the black. We also knew that having a successful business would require having enough money to fund inventory, which, in our case is over $300,000. I’m not a cold-hearted person, and feel for Mr. Mukarker, but why should current license holders be penalized for his lack of planning and/or financial resources?
We try to have fun with what we do here but this is a difficult, competitive business. My living in a Somerville apartment and driving a 16-year-old car will attest to the fact I’m not getting rich from this business. There are currently 9 liquor stores within a 2.5-mile radius of The Spirited Gourmet. Foodies, which is scheduled to open in the fall, will make 10 stores. People shop local for this type of business so there’s a finite number of customers available to sustain a store. 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. Had Mr. Rojas used Shaws/Star Market, and not this store, as an example of what these licenses would be used for I highly doubt they would have been approved. This is, unwittingly, turning into a bait and switch with a small food chain now holding a beer and wine license and a large conglomerate potentially being granted an all-alcohol license. 
Mr. Mukarker appeared with his supporters Monday evening. Elena and I have requested a meeting with the Board prior to their vote. We could really use the support of our customer base so that the Board understands that small business matters and stores like this add to a community. 

Oy Vey: Selectmen’s Liquor License Meeting Moved to Thursday, Oct. 6

Photo: The initial meeting on the transfer of a full alcohol license.

The Belmont Board of Selectmen has rescheduled the continuance of a meeting on the proposed transfer of a full-liquor license, moving the date from Monday, Oct. 3 to Thursday, Oct. 6.

The move was necessitated after the board realized the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana begins at sundown on Oct. 2 and ends at nightfall on Oct. 4. 

“We didn’t want to offend anyone, so that’s why we moved it up three days,” said Mark Paolillo, Selectmen chair at its regularly scheduled meeting on Monday, Sept. 26. 

It is expected the meeting, involving the request by Faud Mukarker, the owner of Brighton Road’s The Loading Dock, to transfer the business’ full alcohol license to the corporation that owns Star Market, which will use the license to place a 2,000 sq.-ft. beer/wine/liquor department in its Waverley Square store. The company would compensate Mukarker $400,000 for the loss of the license.

The initial meeting on Sept. 19 ended in acrimony as the Selectmen would not approve the transaction at the time to the dismay of Mukarker and his supporters.

Selectmen Question Proposed Liquor License Transfer to Star Market

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. 

“This happens in towns and cities in the Commonwealth routinely,” said Hanley.
Hanley said his review of Belmont’s 2014 Home Rule petition that provided for full alcohol licensing indicated no prohibition on transfers which the could have included two years ago but did not.
“We are here to provide economic and community development in the town of Belmont,” said Hanley, noting several times that Star Market has been a fixture in town for a quarter century and is about to undergo a $2.4 million renovation in which the transfer is an essential component.
Handley said with this investment into the store, “customers will come to expect a certain amount of amenities, and the alcohol license is critical to that [economic development] and folks who live in this town,” said Hanley.
Handley said the Belmont store has an experience manager in Steve Duran who ran the Cambridge store which has a thriving retail liquor operation. Additionally, the four current Star locations in Massachusetts – in Cambridge, Franklin and two in Boston – has been cited by the state’s alcohol control board just once in a decade for a violation of sales to minors.
With this transfer, the area of alcohol sales will triple from 700 to 20,000 sq.-ft. (although Handley believes the actual square footage to be utilized is far less) and move from a fledgling business area along Brighton Road to Waverley Square, a highly-traveled location in Belmont.
Asked why Star did not apply for a license in 2014, Duran said the company was limited to four licenses in Massachusetts due to state statute protecting small liquor retailers from large entities that have greater pricing advantages. That ceiling has been raised recently, allowing the corporation to pursue these licenses.

A $400,000 lifeline

While the transfer would be a great addition to a newly remodeled store, the transaction would be a lifeline for Mukarker, who indicated Monday that he needs the $400,000 to “keep the Loading Dock afloat” as the turns around his operation into a full-time restaurant.
Mukarker told the board “I loved this license from day one” and always wanted to keep it. But due to money spent on the building and other expenses, the former banker who became the owner of White Hen Pantry that once stood on the site needed some way to increase sales at the cafe. 
Determining that serving beer and wine with meals would meet his cash flow issue, Mukarker applied to the town for a beer and wine “pour” license that he could use at his expanding restaurant. 
But according to Mukarker, just days before his “pour” application was to be presented before the Selectmen earlier this year, his attorney was told by Belmont’s Town Counsel George Hall about “an absurd law” from 1964 preventing retail owners to have both a retail and pour license in the same establishment. (Selectman Jim Williams would later say that calling a state law “absurd” “is a silly one. It’s on the books, and we don’t do things that violate the law.”)
Hall, who attended Monday’s meeting, told the Selectmen a state’s high court ruling of a Cambridge case confirmed the law’s intent preventing such a dual arrangement.

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.” 

“Very consistent.”

“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. 

Espresso Lane: Starbucks is Coming to Belmont’s Star Market

In the next six weeks, customers at Belmont’s Star Market at 535 Trapelo Rd. will not only be able to purchase their favorite package of Starbucks-brand coffee beans, they can get an iced vanilla latte on their way out.

According to staff at Star, a small Starbucks Coffee cafe will open in early September in a location near the flower department in the front of the store.

Those in the know said the Starbucks will be a licensed store owned and operated by an approved licensee, the Shaw’s Supermarket group, a 155-store group based in West Bridgewater.

A nearby example of such an arrangement is the Starbucks in the Target store in the Watertown Mall. Other familiar locations include inside airports, shopping food courts, college campuses, hospitals and even cruise ships. Eight years ago, Quincy-based Stop & Shop signed a contract with Starbucks, placing the chain’s licensed stores inside a limited number of supermarkets. 

While several licensed locations are fully operational stores, many are kiosks with a limited number of retail items such pastries or coffee selections.

According to the Starbuck’s website, “[t]hese retail locations are staffed by the licensee’s employees and they follow Starbucks training guidelines including beverage quality, store cleanliness, and creating the Starbucks Experience for our customers.”

“Through these locations, we are able to significantly increase customer accessibility to our products and brand, which, from a shareholder perspective, is also valuable because of the profit it contributes to the organization,” states Starbucks.