Observe / Analyze

Boston Beverage Bureaucracy and the Morass of Massachusetts Alcohol Regulations

Book Chapter: Observe / Analyze

Posted: 12/28/2017

On Friday, November 17, 2017 Trillium Brewing Company announced plans to operate an indoor winter beer garden in the historic Roslindale Substation Building ” in partnership with Roslindale Village Main Street.” The post included:

“We had a killer time with the Garden on the Greenway this summer so we jumped at the chance to bring Trillium to another Boston neighborhood,” said Trillium co-owner Esther Tetreault. “Our goal has always been to build a strong community and share what we do. The Substation is such a unique and iconic space, in a welcoming neighborhood, making Roslindale a perfect winter home for the Trillium Garden.”

“Beer aficionados will have the unique opportunity to drink Trillium’s award-winning beer in the Substation’s awe-inspiring space, with its 34 foot ceilings, 18-foot copper clad doors, 250-ton capacity gantry crane, and six two-story windows,” said Alia Hamada Forrest, RVMS’s [Roslindale Village Main Street] Executive Director. “Where Trillium goes, its fans follow. I’m eager to welcome the newcomers that will discover Roslindale’s existing mix of vibrant restaurants and retail options, and hope that these types of creative partnerships continue to spark across all of Boston Main Street districts. We know when you visit — you will want to return.”

The ‘Trillium Garden at the Substation’ pop-up is a good, interim solution for a very cool (and huge), historic, vacant space while the search for a long-term tenant continues. The RVMS website adds:

RVMS identified and sought out Trillium because of its national reputation, loyal following, and successful track record of working in partnership with food, arts, and cultural pop-up events in non-traditional spaces.

Built in 1911, the Substation functioned as part of the Boston Elevated Railway Company’s then revolutionary alternating electric current power system. Designed by architect Robert Peabody of Peabody and Stearns with Stone and Webster Engineering Corporation, the Substation is one of six nearly identical converter substations built in and around Boston at that time. It has been vacant since the 1970s. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Prellwitz Chilinski Associates of Cambridge was the architect for the renovation.

To use Alia Hamada’s (RVMS executive director) words, how do these creative partnerships happen? And why aren’t the details transparent to the public? Unless I’m missing something, the detailed information is not readily available online as it should be.

In January of 2017, Dan Adams in the Boston Globe reported on a long-overdue Massachusetts initiative to review how the state regulates alcohol in a piece titled, ‘Everything is on the table’ in sweeping review of state alcohol rules. From the piece:

Massachusetts Treasurer Deborah Goldberg is throwing open the doors to the most extensive rethinking of how the state regulates alcohol since the end of Prohibition, directing a new task force to create a more cohesive set of rules that “deals with the 21st century.”

With no limits from Goldberg on which issues it may consider, the group of seven legal and political figures — with input from the public and bars, brewers, distributors, and other companies — will have broad authority to set its own agenda when it meets for the first time later in January(2017).

Among the issues that officials and industry executives suggested could be reviewed: extending the hours for package stores, lifting caps on liquor licenses in each municipality, allowing beer-makers to switch distributors more easily, loosening restrictions on consumers bringing alcohol to restaurants or reusing growlers, boosting funding to the chronically understaffed Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, or clarifying rules about so-called pay-to-play incentives.

Many recommendations would require approval by the Massachusetts Legislature. And lawmakers have been reluctant to make comprehensive changes to state alcohol laws, in part because of heavy lobbying by some members of the industry.

Even so, the effort is already the source of anxiety among brewers, distributors, bars, package stores, and other companies with alcohol licenses. While most agree the current regulatory system is needlessly complex and unclear, each segment is worried that changes sought by other businesses will hurt its own bottom line.

As if the antiquated MA liquor licensing laws aren’t confusing enough, when you consider that the Alcohol Beverage Control Commission (ABCC) has to operate ‘in concert with’ each MA municipality (with their own ‘rules’), clarity becomes  even more elusive…

From the Mass.Gov website:

The Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission is an agency under the Massachusetts State Treasury. Our overall objective is to provide uniform control over the sale, transportation, possession, purchasing, and manufacturing of alcoholic beverages in the state.

Who we serve

We work with companies in the alcoholic beverage industry and municipal licensing authorities to provide licenses, enforce legislation and regulations, and resolve license issues.

Updates on substantive progress from the state have been scarce. The Massachusetts Alcohol Task Force released a preliminary report in August of 2017 that included, “We anticipate providing a final report before the end of the year.”

[I spoke with Chandra Allard, Communications Director for the Office of the Treasurer and Receiver General for the State of MA on 12/27/17. She was extremely professional and helpful, and mentioned that the independent MA Alcohol Task Force was on schedule, and that the Treasurer’s office was expecting the report any day. She offered to forward the report to me, and I will edit this post to include it as soon as I receive it.] 

Edit 12/28/17:  Copy of Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission of Massachusetts: Task Force Report

On Sunday, November 12, 2017, the Boston Globe ran a front page story titled, Scores of Cambridge restaurants paid six figures for a liquor license. Others got them for free. As the title suggests, the process of obtaining a liquor license for Cambridge, MA restaurant owners is complicated, inconsistent, and often frustrating and maddening. The article states that “Nothing on the Cambridge License Commission’s website or at its offices explained how to get a free license,” and that there is “… a long line of Cambridge restaurant owners ensnared in an opaque and arbitrary system in which commissioners granted liquor licenses for free to some, while others had to pay up to $450,000 — sometimes at the direct urging of city officials.”

Excerpts from the Globe piece:

City officials belatedly recognized the regulatory mess they created. A new license commission chair was appointed in January 2016 to help clean up the system. Nicole Murati Ferrer formerly worked at Boston’s licensing agency and was charged with bringing Cambridge in line with state law.

In a Globe interview, Murati Ferrer distanced herself from a number of the commission’s past actions. She is relaxing the hurdles to get free licenses, and she has stopped the commission’s practice of urging license seekers to make deals with particular sellers, which had effectively put the city in the middle of high-cost, private transactions.

But Murati Ferrer made no apologies for past policies on issuing licenses, or the negative consequences for owners caught in the middle. She said the commission had no duty at hearings to inform owners of their options, and that people needed to seek information from the city earlier in the process.

“Our job is not to decide whether you negotiated a good deal,’’ Murati Ferrer said. “The rules and regulations were out there.”

“… the process was uneven at best, as commissioners tried to find middle ground between handing out free licenses and making applicants buy them. They often stretched ethical boundaries, and at times broke the commission’s own rules and state law, according to city and state officials.”

One of the biggest complaints from Cambridge restaurateurs was the lack of transparency in the process of issuing licenses.

As a result of the investigative Boston Globe piece, on November 14, 2017, the Globe ran a follow up piece stating that:

A state agency is investigating the way liquor licenses have been issued in the city of Cambridge, officials said Tuesday, and is focusing on practices that may have violated state laws.

State Treasurer Deb Goldberg, who oversees the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, said she found “troubling” the findings in a Boston Globe report on Sunday that examined liquor license transactions in Cambridge. She said her office was “looking into any allegations of wrongdoing that violate state law.”

Clearly, there is a still a significant amount of work to be done to bring fairness and uniformity to the laws, requirements, procedures, and communications related to local and state liquor licensing in Massachusetts. Which brings us back to the Roslindale.

The original announcement about the Trillium Garden at the Substation and/or the opening on December 7, 2017 was reported on by several Boston news outlets. Even reporting on the complicated licensing process can be confusing as hell, as evidenced in this piece by  Universal Hub. As they often do, none of the media outlets reporting on the opening of Trillium in Roslindale included any public information about the alcohol license, a hearing regarding the license, Neighborhood Association meetings, Fire Dept inspection, certificate of occupancy, or permitting (building or otherwise).

No reporting I’ve seen includes answers to the following:

  1. Exactly what type of alcohol license was issued? [Farmer Brewer License, Farmer-Series Pouring PermitPub Brewery License.] Was it a combination of these and/or part of Boston’s special license initiative to encourage commerce in specific neighborhoods?
  2. What are the restrictions/requirements of the specific beverage license issued? (Beer brewed onsite in Roslindale, etc?) My understanding is that Trillium beer is brewed in Fort Point and Canton only, not Roslindale.
  3. What are the restriction/requirements with respect to serving food? Why isn’t Trillium Garden at the Substation required to serve food out of an ISD-inspected kitchen operating within their facility?
  4. Will neighboring restaurants/purveyors be given preference as food vendors? [Sophia Eppolito reports in the Boston Globe on 12/19 that local food vendors will be invited, and that visitors can bring their own food.]
  5. Where did the license come from?
  6. How much did it cost?
  7. Was the license pre-existing?
  8. Is the license a succession of temporary monthly licenses, renewable or transferable?
  9. Who holds the license, the tenant or the landlord?
  10. Was there a public hearing before the license was issued? If not, why not?
  11. Were there public Neighborhood Association meetings conducted before the license was granted? If not, why not? If yes, are there minutes?
  12. If this was a unique/special license granted, were neighboring restaurants/bars invited to a hearing to ask questions, discuss their concerns or voice their support?
  13. How does the Roslindale neighborhood governing body interact with the city of Boston, State of MA,  and Feds (TTB) to ensure that the process of issuing alcohol licenses is consistent and fair for every licenses issued?
  14. Does the issuance of this specific license pave the way for others to follow suit so “these types of creative partnerships continue to spark across all of Boston Main Street districts?” If yes, is anyone (local, city, state, and Fed levels) collaborating on a ‘playbook’ to show others how to replicate and simplify the licensing process?
  15. Why aren’t most of the answers to the questions above readily accessible online?

When I spoke with Chandra Allard with the MA Treasurer’s office, she noted that after they review/analyze the MA Alcohol Task Force report, they will prioritize the recommendations based on what positive changes they can implement immediately, then changes that will require legislation and/or legal proceedings. She also mentioned that the public is welcome to continue to submit recommendations to the MA Treasury Department’s Constituent Services Team via this link. After I read the report, I will be submitting my recommendations based on the questions above, your comments below, and everything else I can read on these issues.

Currently there are a lot of questions, few answers, and a morass of longstanding, complicated issues that need to be addressed. Clarity, consistency, and complete transparency are some of the most pressing.

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Thanksgiving 2010

Book Chapter: Observe / Analyze

Posted: 11/24/2010

I was walking along the Charles River in Boston last week on a remarkably unremarkable, chilly afternoon. The trees were mostly bare, the sky was eerily gray, the grass was brown, and the few joggers who passed by were bundled up to fight off the wind. The day reminded me of a Boston Globe column by Sam Allis, The hard season, published back in November 2001.

I have a drawer full of articles and stories too good for the recycle bin that I read a couple of times a year to remind me of their message and/or because I love the way they are written. I’ve quoted a passage from The hard season several times over the years because it captures the spirit of late fall and Thanksgiving so well for me.

A few things I’m thankful for this year:

  • Everyone who is serving our country in the military, and everyone who has previously served.
  • All the workers who work on Thanksgiving and every other holiday; police officers, firefighters, EMT’s, restaurant, gas station, transportation and convenience store workers, to name a few. (Please add anyone I missed in the comments section.) I’ll add high school football referees if my teams win on Thanksgiving…
  • My family, extended family and friends.
  • Everyone who has read and contributed to the mission of Server Not Servant. I am truly grateful.

 Boston Sunday Globe November 11, 2001

 The Observer-Sam Allis

 The hard season

October is our best shot at the big time. It is the Roman candle that propels New England past the likes of Aspen and Santa Fe into the limelight each fall. Everybody and his grandmother may go west for snow but they come here for the technicolor of our sugar maple.

October is also an L.L. Bean of a month for rural wannabe’s. Its smoky afternoons are benign and its nights crisp. It’s easy to be a Yankee under these conditions. You smear dirt on your new hunting jacket and wash the dorkiness out of the plaid flannel. You work up some blisters and scrapes for good measure and make sure to get some mud on the SUV.

Friends come from the city to sit around the kitchen table and declare their intention to quit the urban madness once and for all. You can count on the following pronouncement at some point in the conversation: “No one ever said on their death bed they wished they’d spent more time at the office.” There is a pinot noir on the oil cloth, a cassoulet on the stove, and a black Lab prone by the fire. So what’s not to like here?

The hard season. It’s the one that lives between the leaves and the snow from young November to Advent. It sends city folk scurrying back to the Central Artery and country folk to the woodpile with a chainsaw. Say goodbye to the warm and fuzzy pretender and hello to the real thing.

It is in this stretch, not October, that you find the soul of New England. It is in this stretch, not October, that you locate the sweet spot of a true Yankee. The hard season, quite simply, is the most profound time of our calendar.

There is nothing funny about it. The days carry the scent of impending hardship and the isolation of a northern winter. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it this way:

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.

Whoever is alone will stay alone, will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,

And wander on the boulevards, up and down,

Restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

Rilke can get a tad dark, but he is on to something real that exists after the trees are bare: You’d best get your act together before it’s too late. Take care of your own business because no one else will. That is the Yankee imperative. It may not apply in Tucson, but it sure does here.

For starters, November brings darkness. Daylight savings dies with its optimism at the end of October, yet we are still shocked each year by headlights in 5 o’clock traffic. If you’re vulnerable to depression, brace yourself. Some afflicted with the malady escape south or west for the winter Others buy those newfangled lights that claim to ape the properties of sunlight. I confess that while I grew up here I find Yankee darkness less amusing with every passing year.

November is complicated because it invites big thoughts along with small chores of survival. You ponder the passage of time and take life’s inventory as you get out of the woolens. You rake leaves, the dumbest activity ever invented. Then it’s on to do battle with the dreaded tree people who may deliver half cords of green wood at exorbitant prices if you’re not careful. Next are your chimney people who tell you to line your fireplaces at $2,000 a pop or risk catastrophic fires. You have no idea if they’re charlatans. You’re out of your league.

And what about kindling? Just try finding any of that stuff in Boston for less than the price of caviar. Do you cave and buy the low-rent brick fire-starters? Do you burn the entire Sunday Globe to get a fire going? Or do you say the hell with the whole thing and opt for space heaters?

The list goes on. Windows need weather stripping. Gutters need cleaning. What about a shoveler? Is last year’s guy still around? Are those jumper cables in your trunk? You dismiss this check list at your peril.

But November, the essence of this hard season, is the improbable belle of the New England year. Like a loud plaid, October looks almost tacky next to its muted palette of browns and grays. It owns a color that lives all by itself somewhere between gold and platinum in fields and meadows. It seduces with subtlety.

The hard season, to be sure, is an acquired taste. The land is empty, the trees naked and spooky. The wind is now an unfriendly thing. But it is a celebration of lichened stone walls and the contours of our hills, revealed once again, before they disappear under snow and black ice.

Better still. November is crowned by the great American holiday, Thanksgiving. We invented it here. It is a perennial winner because it carries none of the emotional baggage of Christmas and the religious spin is light. As Garrison Keillor wrote, it’s a peasant holiday where all you have to do is sit down and eat.

The feast is a requiem for the soft days and a tocsin for the harsh ones to come. The joy of autumn dissipates fast in the dwindling light. That’s why we should scour the countryside like beagles and partake of this hard season that imbues our lives with meaning.

Posted with permission from Sam Allis (email: allis@globe.com).

Happy Thanksgiving


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Water Experiment

Book Chapter: Observe / Analyze

Posted: 02/5/2010

I was reading the paper and having breakfast at the counter at one of my favorite greasy spoons this week, when a guy came in and sat a few stools away. I’m always doing research for my book, so naturally I listened in. The waitress approached him with her typical, Coffee, Hon? He replied, Yes, half regular and half decafe. Don’t refill it when I’m half done; you’ll mess up the balance of the cream and sugar.

As is often the case, I started to wonder if people realize how many personal, idiosyncratic preferences we have when it comes to eating and drinking. Of course servers know this, but I thought it would be fun to do an experiment to illustrate the point that there are hundreds of variables that go into every restaurant dining experience.

I’ve read thousands of amateur and professional reviews of restaurants over the years. Ok, it’s an obsession. The more I read, the more I know that you “can’t please all of the people all of the time,” especially with something as subjective as dining out.  Everyone has their own idea of exactly how things should be done. The next time you’re dining out with a group, ask everyone what they would do differently about the music, lighting, temperature, noise level, food, drinks,service and ambiance of the restaurant. Or just ask about something as simple as the bread. Do they like the bread? Is it warm enough? Do they like sea salt on their butter? Olive oil instead of butter? Rolls instead of bread? Bread before ordering food or with appetizers? If they owned the restaurant, what kind of bread would they serve?

Initially I thought about including personal  preferences regarding a few items in this experiment (coffee, bread + water), but I decided to keep it as simple as possible.

What is your exact personal preference in terms of drinking water in restaurants?

Here are a few variables to think about:

  • Tap, filtered, bottled, flat,  sparkling…
  • I only drink _______ brand.
  • On-premise, well water if you have it.
  • Fresh, running mountain stream only.
  • Flavored
  • Sippy cover for kids
  • Ice/Crushed ice/No ice
  • Freezing cold, room temp
  • Imported/domestic
  • Big glass, wine glass, short glass, tall glass…
  • I don’t drink water and I get upset when the server brings it automatically because the world is running out of water, dammit!!
  • Lemon? Lime? 3 lemons and 1 lime, but don’t squeeze them…
  • Other fruit?
  • I want my water waiting at my table and filled vigilantly until I get up to leave. I have a stopwatch and I will blast you on CitySearch, Chowhound, Yelp, and every other amateur review site if my water isn’t refilled within 1.25 minutes of being empty.
  • I like when the server leaves a pitcher so we can just fill our glasses at our own pace.
  • Straw/No straw

My preference is room-temperature tap water, served in a large glass with no ice, no fruit, no straw. If I’m away from the table when the server takes the order and pours water for the table, I’ll drink whatever is put in front of me. I prefer that my water is replenished throughout the meal. I never bring a stopwatch to a restaurant, and I think nothing of getting up and mentioning refills for our table if necessary.

After we see how easy it is to satisfy our water selections, we’ll talk about menus, drinks and bread. That’s when the real fun begins…

So, in a perfect world, what kind of water do you drink in a restaurant, and how is it served?

Let’s see if we can get 40 responses. Please take a moment to add your comment below. Thank you.

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