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Remember to Bring the Wine: Many Restaurants are B.Y.O.

Town is over liquor license limit, but restaurant owners don't mind

So you just made a reservation at one of Millburn’s many popular restaurants. Before heading out the door, did you remember to check if it’s B.Y.O.?

Only three downtown spots have a full-service bar: Martini Bistro & Bar, Restaurant MC and Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse. Basilico serves New Jersey-made wines, but also allows customers to bring their own. There are just 9 full-bar restaurants in the entire town.

The reason behind the shortage is the town’s population. In New Jersey, a town is permitted one full liquor licensed-restaurant per 3,000 residents. With fewer than 20,000 residents, Millburn is allowed six licenses.

Nine are currently licensed because several were grandfathered in when the law changed, said Township Clerk Joanne Monarque. With the current excess, absolutely no new full licenses will be issued in the foreseeable future, she said. There are partial licenses available, such as the special New Jersey-wine license and microbrewery licenses, but those are distributed by the state, not the town.

The only way to obtain a full license is to buy one from another restaurant. If a restaurant goes out of business without selling its license, that license will not be re-issued. In other words, there would be one less alcohol-serving restaurant.

With such strict limitations, one might expect every restaurant owner in town is trying to get his hands on a liquor license, but that's not true, especially in today’s economy.

La Strada owner Dario Coppola prefers being a B.Y.O. establishment. “I think it’s better to not have one in this kind of place,” he said of his casual Millburn Avenue pizzeria and restaurant, “You need them in the fancy places, but not here.”

The idea of acquiring a liquor license garnered a similar response from Tinga Taqueria manager David Wattick. ”It’s a family town, so not having the license isn’t a big deal,” he said.  “It helps us because we are a kid-friendly place.”

Across the street at Basilico, owner Mario DeMarco said it is actually helping business. “Being a B.Y.O.B., in today’s economy, when I talk to customers, they say it helps,” he said, “It’s positive for us and for our customers. When they want to go out, but not spend a lot, it is a good compromise to go to a B.Y.O.B. place.”

A manager at Essex St.’s La Campagna, Allan Fonseca, agrees. “Not having [a liquor license], the way things are now, it helps us.“

Next door to La Campagna is Dave’s Liquors. Owner Kishor Makyana is happy to be located near so many B.Y.O. establishments because he gets a “good amount” of business from people who realize at the last minute that they need to bring their own alcohol. Someone from the group simply leaves to pick up a bottle of wine or a 6-pack.

“There’s no promise that a restaurant will have variety," he said. "They can’t possibly keep this much inventory.”

Another bonus is the price. “A restaurant will charge almost double for the same bottle of wine,” Makyona said. He points to a bottle of Ravens Wood, which he sells for $11.95, and laughs, saying he’s “seen it on wine lists for $25.” With the economy struggling, Makvona said B.Y.O. is more appealing.

Yet the restaurants that have licenses have no intentions of changing, regardless of what happens with the economy.

Evelyn Hsu, General Manager at Restaurant MC on Main Street, said liquor sales account for 40 percent of the restaurant's revenue.

“Serving alcohol is definitely a huge part of business, a positive thing,” she said, “While many places in NJ allow you to bring in your own wine and beer, you can’t really bring your own martinis. Customers really like our specialized cocktails because it adds to the whole dining experience.”

Just down the street, Charlie Brown’s manager John Montemurro said that alcohol sales account for 20-36 percent of revenue.

Despite the obvious positives, Montemurro says that in this area, “It is very difficult to work at a liquor license restaurant because guests think they can bring it in. And even when they buy a bottle of wine here, they think they can bring it home, which they can’t.”

Hsu is honest about how the license is affecting business since the recession hit.

“What hurts us is that they look at the check and are surprised that it is higher than at a B.Y.O. place, because they forget to factor in the cocktails and wine," she said. "Alcohol adds up quickly. But they are still coming in because it is part of the dining experience and they enjoy it.”

In the end, license or no license, it all comes back to the food. According to Tinga’s Wattick, “Having great food is the reason people come back to a place. It’s not because of the alcohol.”

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