In Massachusetts, obtaining a liquor license is notoriously difficult for restaurants. Those licenses are often fairly expensive, but tend to reap dividends for restaurants that obtain them. For some restaurants, a liquor license can be the difference between prosperity and imminent closure—with high costs and long waits, the application process comes with high stakes. Most Massachusetts cities and towns make these stakes even higher by imposing a finite limit on liquor licenses awarded at any given time. Of the state’s 351 cities and towns, only two—Cambridge and Plymouth—set no such limit. Cambridge is right to let the licenses flow—the policy is better for business and better for Cambridge.
The strict regulations on liquor licenses prevalent in so many Mass. cities and towns have their roots in Prohibition-era anxieties. Worried that Boston would fail in its morals, the state created the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, which still today sets strict limits of the number of licenses a municipality can award, basing those limits on population. Boston, as the state’s largest city, has the greatest number of licensed establishments, but Cambridge has far more licenses per capita.
The reason Cambridge outpaces Boston on a per person basis? The city got an exemption from ABCC regulations (as did Plymouth, of Pilgrim renown). While neighboring Boston and Somerville must set up byzantine systems of license distribution—at times resulting in state officials being jailed for corruption—Cambridge has no such problem.
Beyond the benefits of less bureaucracy and fewer convictions for license-related bribery, Cambridge also receives economic benefit because of its exemption. Liquor tends to be fairly expensive, and the increased sales are a boon to Cambridge’s economy. Furthermore, the relative lack of liquor-licensed restaurants in Boston sends workers across the Charles—Boston’s loss is Cambridge’s gain.
This is not to say that leaders across the state haven’t tried to get exemptions themselves. Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick ’78 and Mayor Thomas M. Menino tried to get Boston an exemption in 2011, and Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone has sought the same for his city. Both efforts, however, have yet to succeed.
Massachusetts would likely do well to rid itself of the ABCC and its arcane liquor laws. As Cambridge can attest, unfettered awarding of licenses is good for the economy, and likely does not pose much of a hazard to public safety. (The only real beneficiaries of license restriction are the existing liquor license holders—regulation curbs competition and manufactures a valuable asset, the license.) Furthermore, by lifting the cap on liquor licenses, Massachusetts cities and towns would eliminate one source of government corruption.
Until the Commonwealth can better regulate its liquor, Cambridge does well to eschew the regulations, drawing thirsty customers from cities that limit licenses. Though licenses remain fairly expensive, and though the process to gain one may be a hassle, Cambridge removes one obstacle that restaurants must face throughout the rest of the Commonwealth. For choosing a vibrant restaurant scene over ancient liquor laws long overdue for appeal, Cambridge sets an example for its state.