A First Look: Four Vie for Full Liquor, Beer and Wine Licenses

Despite the early hour –  8 a.m. – and school vacation, the Board of Selectmen’s Room at Town Hall was filled with residents as the selectmen met on Tuesday, April 22, for the first of two public meetings in which four businesses presented their applications seeking a license to sell either beer or wine or a full slate of liquor in Belmont.

And this year, three of the four applicants are seeking the golden ticket from the Selectmen; a full-liqour license that will allow the sale of spirits in town, becoming the first licensed “liquor” store in the town’s 155 years.

“This is the first of two public meetings to discuss the available licenses,” Selectmen Chair Andy Rojas told the 50 residents who squeezed into the board room.

The next public meeting will take place on Thursday, May 1 at 6:30 p.m. Because the board expects a considerable number of residents to attend the next meeting, a larger location has yet to be selected.

And while each of the three – The Loading Dock on Brighton Avenue, Belmont Center’s Craft Beer Cellar and D&L Liquors of Waltham – presented well-thoughout presentations (all would emphasize training their staffs on state laws controlling sales to those under 21), at first glance there already appears to be a front runner for the coveted full permit, the only establishment to win praise from the audience during the meeting.

Kate Baker and Suzanne Schalow, owners of the Craft Beer Cellar at 51 Leonard St. in Belmont Center, came before the board with a proposal to expand “very lightly” their craft beverage concept to include small artisanal liquor companies such as Belmont’s Damnation Alley distillery as well as allowing their store to sell beers, such as Sam Adams’ Utopias, that exceed 12 percent alcohol content which they are currently barred from handling by state law.

They anticipate selling about 30 to 40 bottles each of liquor and strong beers taking up 200 to 250 square feet of the 1,500 sq.-ft. main

The two self-proclaimed “beer geeks” have overseen the store’s rapid success since opening in November 2010 – winning a Best of Boston award from Boston Magazine – to where now the business is franchising their craft beer concept across the state and around the country.

Belmont residents, Baker and Schalow discussed cultivating relations in Belmont’s business community, among residents and with local government, with Schalow stating she and Baker “feel very, very blessed” that they have the opportunity to build on their retail model from “our mothership” store in their hometown.

When asked by Selectman Sami Baghdady how much attention they can give managing the store with its new products if they are expanding their concept across the country, Schalow said the “one place that I really want to be is in my hometown,” saying that she and Baker will continue to be in the main store.

Of the four applications, which included LC Variety located on Trapelo Road which is seeking one of two beer and wine only licenses available, supporters of Craft Beer Cellars – including former Selectman Ralph Jones – hailed the business and the owner’s commitment to customer service and the town in calling for the town to provide them the license.

First customer speaks for Belmont business

Darryl King of Long Avenue said as the first person in line when the Cellar’s doors initially opened three and a half years ago, the owners have been “exemplary” in their service and training of employees.

“They even shoveled the sidewalk before they were told to. They have done everything right,” said King, who urged the selectmen to favor the two women.

On the other end of the spectrum, what would appear to be a strong candidate for the license brought out the largest contingency of residents seeking to block the proposal. D&L Liqour has been in the business since the first day after Prohibition in 1933 when Peter Dion’s grandfather took out a license.

Now in its fourth generation, the Dion family has grown the business to three locations in Needham, Woburn and its home in Waltham. The store would be less a traditional liquor store then a full-service retail operation with expanded educational services especially in wines which they are now emphasizing. A good corporate neighbor, the Dion family has garnered the support of Waltham town officials who vouch to the business’ cooperation with law enforcement in preventing underaged drinking.

Yet despite 80 years of experience and a good business record, many residents waited to speak out in opposition to the Waltham’s business from opening in Belmont. While the residents said they were not opposed to D&L or any similar company coming to town, they wanted the board to reject the proposal due to its location.

Homeowners and at least one business owner told the selectmen the proposed building D&L would renovate – currently the Mini-Mart at the corner of Pleasant and Brighton streets – is in the midst of an active residential neighborhood with many families with small children.

The most formidable challenge to the Dion’s efforts to come to the location a block from Route 2 came from a fellow business owner and resident. Representing Dr. Iris Chin Ponte who runs the four-year-old Henry Frost Children’s Program less than a block away, Adam Ponte of the Boston law firm Kenney & Sams said his client (and sister) would hope the board would invoke a Supreme Judicial Court decision to deny the sale of alcohol within 500 feet of a school or child care business.

Ponce added that due to its location near a highway and with the recent spate of panhandling at the intersection, a liquor store would “be another avenue for criminal activity.”

Homeowners who spoke worried that vehicle traffic from the site’s 12-space parking lot will significantly increase leading to congested streets and making it more difficult to cross these already busy main streets.

Former Boston school administrator Edward Mabardi, who said he built his house nearby 40 years ago in a residential area, asked “what value does a liquor store here give Belmont?”

Katherine Nelson of Bradford Street said of the 49 homes in her area – which 75 percent have “small kid” – 42 homeowners have expressed opposition to the proposal and 65 signatures on a petition to the board. 

In support of a “vital new business”

As a counter to the prevailing view, former Selectman Angelo Firenze said he supports D&L “a new and vital new business to Belmont” since it would rehab “a very, very tired building.” He noted that the decision will be a difficult one for the board, “so good luck,” said Firenze.

The one full-license applicant that did not elicited a public response from the public would be a newcomer to selling alcohol. The Loading Dock is undergoing an extensive renovation at its Brighton Street location which will be across a parking from the new Belmont Light substation.

Fuad Mukarker, who first managed the former White Hen Pantry then buying the store in 2010, said he wants to add a new 500 square-foot section of the 3,000 square-foot footprint for liquor sales as he moves away from the current convenient store business to “a family market that sells liquor” as a compliment to the food they purchase.

When asked by Rojas on the close proximity of Belmont High School (which has a troubled reputation of student drinking for the past three decades) to the store, Mukarker said he has been diligent in keeping students from “hanging around” the store and from attempting to purchase cigarettes.

“We are very, very careful with these things,” said Mukarker.

Only one applicant is seeking a beer and wine license in this cycle but there were concerns with this limited proposal. LC Variety at the corner of Trapelo Road and Walnut Street in Belmont’s Central Square will add 400 square-feet of space for alcohol sales, said owner and Belmont resident Pankaj Ghai.

“It’s a convenient store and this is [an added service],” said Ghai who has owned the store for the past 12 years.

Baghdady, who is a neighbor of Ghai and has been a customer of the store since he was a child, said the store continues to be frequented by small children and teenagers.

“You will locate the beer and wine in the back and you only have one employee in the store. How will you establish controls?” he asked.

“I know the parents and they all talk to me so they know I am watching what is going on. I know my duties,” said Ghai, who said his staff has not made any sales of cigarettes to minors since he’s owned the store.

Yet Rojas said the town’s health department has had issues over the years with the management and the store has been victimized twice by armed robbers in less than 12 months. And neighbors did not give Ghai much comfort on his application.

“This is a store that sells cigarettes, lottery tickets, pornography and potato chips,” said Jean Cabral of Walnut Street who said the garbage and trash are not kept in containers.

With a preschool in the VFW building down Trapelo Road and Pequosette Park nearby, this is not the time “to add beer and wine to a variety store,” said Cabral.

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