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Lack of available liquor licenses hurting Mei Mei Street Kitchen

Mei Mei Street Kitchen, a restaurant located in South Campus, has been deferred from obtaining a liquor license by the Boston Licensing Board, causing an obstacle for the restaurant’s development.

The restaurant is unable to get a beer and wine license from the Boston Licensing Board because the city has reached the limit of alcohol licenses. Right now, the cap for Boston is 650 full liquor licenses and 320 wine and malt liquor licenses, despite that Boston is home to more than 2,000 restaurants and bars.

Margaret Li, co-owner of Mei Mei, said the restaurant has been seeking a license since it opened in December.

“If we want one [a beer and wine license] through the city, we either have to wait until one becomes available, which means reapplying and paying the fees every 30 days, or buy one on the open market which is currently running at about $90,000,” she said. “This is a problem particularly faced by small independent business because it is the bigger chains that have the capital to buy these liquor licenses and hold on to them.”

Nicole Murati Ferrer, chair of the Boston Licensing Board, one of the two boards required to approve a liquor license petition, said although the board does not have the power to grant extra licenses, it tries to help qualified restaurants when no licenses are available.

There is a law that prevents businesses from applying for a license multiple times within one license year, but Ferrer and the rest of the board try to work around that when a business would otherwise be granted a license had there been any available.

“For us in Boston, since we’re almost always at the cap, if we don’t have a license [at the time that we approve of an application] what we do is we defer the application up to 30 days to see if a license become available then,” Ferrer said. “If a license does become available, then we grant that license to that petitioner. If no license opens up, then we reject the petition without precedence so that the person can reapply as often as they want to within that year.”

A petition to bring the control of the number of liquor licenses in Boston has been passed by the City Council, but still needs to be signed by the mayor and then by the state legislature. The petition would bring the number of licenses available within proportion with the number of restaurants in Boston.

“It’s a huge component of revenue for many restaurants and this is one of the areas where costs tend to be lower so it’s a big aspect of profit,” Li said. “We are worried … generally a license can be found. It’s just a question of whether you can pull together the finances for one. It’s an important part of our business though, so we would most likely have to make that investment at some point, the question is how long can we hold out hoping to get one from the city.”

Some residents said being able to sell liquor should not be that much of a deciding factor for whether restaurants succeed or not.

“I go to restaurants for the food, not the alcohol,” said Yifan Zhang, 24, of Fenway. “It’s strange that there would be so few liquor licenses available, but it’s also strange that restaurants would find it so necessary.”

James Danielson, 45, of Brighton, said he does not understand why there is a cap on liquor licenses.

“I can’t think of a reason why that would be necessary as long as those who are granted licenses meet all the criteria,” he said.

John Nguyen, 50, of Boston, said he sees how the lack of having an alcohol license could hinder businesses in a city filled with businesses that do have alcohol licenses.

“The American market and economy is all about competition,” he said. “It’s completely impractical that there are so few licenses available to such a lively city. Allowing more restaurants to have alcohol licenses would help small restaurants stay alive and add to the city atmosphere.”

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