Letter To The Editor: Liquor, Money, and Politics in Belmont

Photo: The September meeting between the Selectmen and Star Market and the Loading Dock.

To the editor:

Belmont was a “dry” town until about 2000. Over several years, we carefully authorized and licensed restaurants and retail stores. Elected officials spent hours developing rules to ensure that when we went from “dry” to “wet” we wouldn’t end up in the mud where liquor licenses are sold to the highest bidder.

But here we are.  On Oct. 6, the Board of Selectmen (by a vote of 2 to 1, with Chairman Mark Paolillo dissenting) authorized The Loading Dock to transfer its right as a retail all-alcohol licensee to Star Market for $400,000.   

This is not what Town Meeting intended when it voted to increase the number of all-alcohol retail licenses from one to two. The Selectmen’s decision on Oct. 6 is a threat to small retail stores in Belmont. Town Meeting needs to fix this.     

Let me explain.    

Until 2013, Town Meeting had authorized only one all-alcohol retail store. That license was held by The Spirted Gourmet in Cushing Square. At the annual Town Meeting in 2013, Town Meeting authorized a second all-liquor retail store. In 2014, the Selectmen gave that license to The Loading Dock. 

During the 2013 Town Meeting, Donald Mercier, Town Meeting Member from Precinct 8, suggested that the language of the article on all-alcohol retail licenses should be drafted more carefully.  He said, “I appreciate what this group of Selectmen are doing, but in 10 years from now, we may have different Selectmen with different ideas. So I think this license has to be tightened down, so you get what you want today, what you want to create today.” Mercier was right.  

What the Selectmen promised in 2013 was that they would approve a full liquor retail license to an establishment similar to the first recipient of that license – The Spirited Gourmet — a small specialty store. No Town Meeting Member recommended that the license should go to a supermarket chain with 2,200 stores nationwide. Instead, the vast majority of speakers insisted that the second license go only to a small, specialty store. A Town Meeting Member from Precinct 3 also asked for assurances that the license would not go to any vendor in Waverley Square near the Butler School.  The Selectmen said that they understood.  

I was a member of that Board, and we promised we would follow the intent of Town Meeting.    

But Mercier was right. We have different Selectmen now. On Oct. 6, the second of two all-alcohol retail licenses was transferred from The Loading Dock to Star Market for $400,000.    

Star Market was started in 1915 by the Mugar family in Watertown. According to its website, Star Market is now part of AB Acquisition LLC, which is owned by a consortium of private investors led by Cerebus Capital Management. Cerebus financed a merger to create the second-largest supermarket chain in the US. According to financial analysts, the intent was to create a huge chain that could compete with Kroger and WalMart.  

The Selectmen held two hearings on the transfer of this license. At the first meeting (on Sept. 19), the attorney for Star Market told the Board that it “must follow the letter of the 2014 home rule petition.”  The letter of the home rule petition only tells the Selectmen what they could do. It does not tell them what they should do. The Selectmen had the legal authority to determine public need and public good for Belmont.  

The Board’s determination should have been shaped by the values and expectations of Town Meeting Members as expressed during the Town Meeting of 2013. Former Selectmen Mahoney and Solomon attended the October hearing and explained to current Selectmen that the intent of the original rules on alcohol licenses in Belmont. The intent was to award these licenses to small, specialty stores, and to prohibit their transfer. According to Ms. Mahoney, this has been an ongoing covenant between Town Meeting, Belmont residents, and small businesses since 2000.  

As the son of a small retail store owner, I know what small businesses hope to get from government – consistency, predictability, and fair play … and maybe some parking.

The Selectmen’s decision on Oct. 6 was inconsistent with past precedent and a threat to small businesses. Elena Benoit of The Spirited Gourmet explained that she and Chris Benoit had worked hard and played by the rules for ten years. She was encouraged to open the Belmont store by than Selectman Angelo Firenze. But now, the Board had decided to change the rules. That, she argued, is not fair play. Jen Bonislawski, owner of the new Arts Specialties store on Trapelo Road testified that she “didn’t know how we’re going to survive.”

The Selectmen’s decision on Oct. 6 sends a message to small retail stores in Belmont.  Consistency and predictability are not important. The license originally awarded to a small specialty store for $4,000 can be transferred to a large supermarket for $400,000.      

Trust in elected officials is fragile. Once lost, it is not easily restored. To start the process of restoring Town Meeting’s long-standing commitment to small, local businesses, we must “tighten down” the authority to grant liquor licenses. We should not allow any Board to award licenses “at its discretion.” Town Meetings can specify who gets a license and ensure that licenses cannot be sold or transferred.   

Also, it seems prudent to create a new, appointed Alcohol Beverage Licensing Board in Belmont.  This Board should not be merely advisory.  It should have the exclusive authority to issue licenses.  An appointed Board would have sufficient institutional memory to have known that some of the “concessions” offered by Star Market on Oct. 6 merely brought it into compliance with Belmont’s existing regulations.            

The Board’s decision of Oct. 6, leaves us in a state of legal ambiguity.  We need to end this ambiguity in a manner that is consistent with Town Meeting’s intent.  

The attorney for Star Market informed us that the sale of liquor licenses is “routine” in Massachusetts. We know.  That is why Town Meetings and Selectmen spent a decade creating a unique environment in Belmont — where licenses would be issued consistent with Town Meeting’s intent, where licenses would not be transferred, and where promises to small retail businesses would not be broken. A future Town Meeting must re-establish this policy and ensure that it is enforced.  

Ralph Jones

Summit Road

Town Meeting Member, Precinct 3 and former selectman

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.