Read Now »

The Garden State's independent news source for all things culinary


A House Divided

Liquor license reform must start with the hospitality industry putting its core mission above all else and standing united in the cause of long-term success.

The I-don’t-care-about-you, I-only-care-about-me attitude is peaking right now as New Jersey contemplates liquor license reform.

It’s not a good look for the hospitality industry.

Better would be listening. Better would be understanding what community is about. Better would be a coming together of minds and means, and realizing New Jersey is one of the few states, given its size, its diversity, its geography and its heritage, capable of bridging gaps.

Right now, there is an abyss between haves and have-nots in the restaurant industry. The have-nots do not have liquor licenses, which tend to be unaffordable for many smaller places in smaller towns. What the haves possess is a license to sell alcoholic beverages, a highly profitable edge that restaurateurs attest to with evidence aplenty.

It is understandable that the haves are protective of what they have paid for and worked for, what they’ve invested in and maintained at no minor cost; this fact cannot be shrugged aside. It is also understandable that the have-nots want a shot at making a living in restaurants by having a license to sell alcoholic beverages; that they cannot afford New Jersey’s price tags also cannot be shrugged aside.

It is at this juncture that we have remained for decades – a stalemate that does nothing to help the Garden State grow economically and does nothing to further our ability to keep and attract top-quality culinary professionals. Professionals who, deservedly, have become a respected commodity nationwide.

The matter has come to a head in these last few pandemic-inflicted years as restaurants have shuttered, been forced to alter their missions, reduce staff and then beg for even skeletal staff. The culinary professions that have won new respect in the last 20 to 30 years suddenly were in a precarious position: The restaurants where so many of them could come together – the farmers and food artisans, the winemakers, brewers and distillers – no longer could be seen as patrons and customers of what their culinary colleagues were growing, producing and creating. And restaurants no longer were being seen as attractive workplaces, be it during-school-years temporary or a long-term career: too much work time for too little compensation.

This is broad-spectrum economy stuff, whether you’re a have or a have-not. This is why the prevailing attitude of I-don’t-care-about-you, I-only-care-about-me is dangerous, short-sighted and eventually will affect us all. It is bottom-line based.

Forget political allegiances when it comes to this situation. The fact that Gov. Phil Murphy, in his State of the State address earlier this winter, pledged to initiate reforms in New Jersey’s liquor license laws is an effort we need to come together to discuss – both obvious “sides” and every nuanced mind-set in between.

One tragedy of the immediate chasm Gov. Murphy’s first-look ideas created is that the haves/have-nots retreated to their respective corners. That flies in the face of the essence of the hospitality industry, the purpose of which is to bring together people over the table. That crack to its core in these intervening weeks is deepening, the product of misunderstandings and accusations.

Enough already.

Some are perpetuating myths that Main Streets are going to end up looking like skid rows of yore if restaurants that currently are BYOBs purchase licenses and sell alcoholic beverages to their diners. Others are claiming all BYOBs will be forced into becoming licensed restaurants and there won’t be any restaurants where a wine or brew lover can bring a favorite bottle of their own.

This is nonsense. No restaurant owner is going to be forced to turn her or his BYOB into a licensed restaurant unless she or he wishes to do so. Liquor licenses are not going to be free to all – or turn into a free-for-all. Buying a liquor license will remain an investment for anyone who purchases a new one at this juncture. That’s an investment in the license itself, investment in beverage inventory, investment in higher costs of insurance and investment in the additional staff that would be needed for service.

Do most believe the initial investments will be returned, and then some? Yes, they do. Why? Because there’s plentiful evidence to prove that it will. But not every restaurateur wants a liquor license. An evolving trend in restaurants since we started to break out of the throes of the pandemic is a move to more daytime dining and to more take-out items. It’s an evolving café culture, and not all the chefs at these eateries are looking to buy liquor licenses; they’re looking for a less-complicated way to do business – and to be home at 7 or 8 p.m., not turning four-tops.

The BYOB restaurants that would be going for licenses largely are chef-driven, including chefs at emerging ethnic spots that widen our dining experiences. Because these restaurants tend to serve specialized, individualistic dishes from menus that speak with a voice; because they are more likely to be sourcing ingredients locally, not from distributors; and because they also are employing trained staff in their kitchens and dining rooms, their food and operating costs are higher – and profit margins slimmer.

If you want such chef-driven restaurants in New Jersey, those chefs need to make enough money to survive. Which is where liquor license reform comes in.

It’s fact that New Jersey’s current liquor licensing laws were born in and out of Prohibition era circumstances. They were written at a time when criminals controlled much of the alcoholic beverage industry. A time when honest people making a living in the restaurant and bar trades were not safe doing their jobs. A time when America was desperately crawling out of the Great Depression precipitated by a stock market crash that left people hungry for work and necessities of life.

A lot has changed in the almost-century since those laws were written. But while much of the rest of America has progressed with the times, New Jersey has remained burdened with archaic liquor licensing laws. If New Jersey doesn’t move forward now, the losses will keep mounting

Right now, New Jersey is hemorrhaging talent – talent in a culinary industry that could be thriving, given what we have here in New Jersey. The Garden State is a peninsula bountiful with natural resources and, most importantly, people from wide-ranging backgrounds who want to serve their communities their food, their glorious food, food that, very often, both traditionally and culturally, involves beverages.

But for such independent chef-driven restaurants without licenses, the profit margins are just not there. As we’ve all been hearing – from all sides – profit margins in restaurants based solely on food are in the low single digits. Profit margins in restaurants that serve alcohol have profit margins in the double digits. The situation is particularly bleak for some of the Garden State’s smaller towns: With licenses currently tied by those Prohibition era laws to population, downtowns are being hamstrung, prevented from developing the kinds of culinary scenes that have refreshed and revitalized towns elsewhere.

These outdated laws are mind-bogglingly destructive. They work at odds with the progress of our state as a whole, kicking ourselves in the economic teeth. We sit between two restaurant industry powerhouses of New York City and Philadelphia and watch as outposts of those out-of-state restaurants, using monies earned at licensed restaurants across the Hudson and the Delaware, are built here. Their profits then swim back to their corporate coffers.

Something needs to give. Our 90-year-old liquor license laws are effectively putting a stopper in the growth of our Garden State’s foodways and food chain.

Gov. Murphy says he will be conducting roundtables statewide to discuss liquor license reform. These must not only take place throughout New Jersey, but bring in voices critical to the discourse and open up the conversations to restaurant chefs and owners both from the “have” and “have-not” points-of-view.

Three things must happen concurrently and immediately:

  1. Gov. Murphy needs to address the major factor of the investments current liquor license holders have made with actual numbers attached to his plan for means-tested tax rebates. Working with a variety of restaurants – in terms of size, location and cuisine type – from all parts of New Jersey, the governor needs to show all involved how bottom lines will work. The people who worked, saved and sacrificed to make investments in liquor licenses are understandably outraged at the idea they may be devalued. The means-tested tax rebates seem to have potential; but everyone involved needs to see the numbers now.
  2. A new level of alcoholic-beverage license that would be limited to wine, beer and cider must be established. A bill that would make this happen has been floating around the state Legislature. Incorporated in this proposal must be a requirement that provides for a certain percentage of the wines, beers and ciders on any establishment’s list to be made/grown/produced by New Jersey beverage artisans. The cost of this limited license that provides for New Jersey supporting New Jersey needs to be affordable for small restaurateurs and comparable in price to those in neighboring Pennsylvania and New York. Also, there needs to be limits on the total numbers of alcoholic beverages offered in order to appropriately distinguish them from the broader-scale licenses currently held.
  3. Modifications must be made now to too-restrictive food laws at our breweries and distilleries. They are being crushed by current laws that prohibit them from reaching their potentials. Sadly, too, there are, right now, licensed restaurants and taverns that are boycotting our very own breweries and distilleries, seeing them as competition rather than assets to building strong culinary communities and commerce. One look at other states where restaurants support their alcoholic beverage industries proves boycotts are folly and symbiosis successful.

The fact is, current license owners have paid a price and it would be wrong of anyone to expect that their investment be disregarded and devalued. The fact is, as well, that our state’s economy, as a whole, is suffering because of laws that sit, rigidly, in the past.

New Jersey needs to support our own. Our hospitality industry needs to lead by doing that which is fundamental to its very name and purpose: It needs to come together for the goal of making the Garden State not the nation’s capital for chain restaurants whose profits flow to out-of-state coffers, but dominated by New Jersey born-and-bred restaurants.

It would be a most welcome kind of self-service.


Support New Jersey's foodways and culinary enterprises.

Subscribe »