State legislation allows for the sale of spirits in Tisbury restaurants

New legislation to expand liquor licensing in Tisbury could be on the ballot in May.

Restaurants in Vineyard Haven may be allowed to serve liquor in addition to beer and wine. Beach Road, shown here. — MV Times

Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation on Jan. 5 that expands current beer and wine licenses for restaurants in Tisbury to offer the sale of liquor. The decision still has to be voted on, either in state or local elections.

Tisbury board of selectmen chairman Melinda Loberg told The Times on Monday that selectmen will vote on Jan. 24 to determine whether to put it on the ballot for town vote on May 9, or to wait until 2018 for the statewide election.

Ms. Loberg anticipates that it will be on the ballot for May 9 in the local elections. “Why wait? Why make businesses wait through another two seasons when people want it on the ballot?” she said.  

The legislation would allow the sale of all alcoholic beverages in restaurants, including restaurants in hotels. Restaurants must have a seating capacity of no fewer than 30 people, and beverages would still have to be consumed with meals.

The legislation expands current licenses to offer liquor, but will not add new licenses. Tisbury has a total of 19 restaurant permits it could issue, although there is only about a handful of restaurants that currently operate in the town.

“I think it is the restaurants that are going to be happy because they’re the ones who requested it, and feel as if it will enhance the likelihood of having a viable business,” Ms. Loberg said.

She acknowledged the concerns opponents have — that the town could head in a direction that may eventually establish bars, or have to spend more money on public safety as a result of offering liquor.

“That’s not the atmosphere we want in Tisbury,” she said.

But beer and wine have not been a problem in Tisbury, and “it remains to be seen” if the addition of spirits will change that, considering the strict guidelines for service the town has in place, she said.

Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel, however, thinks it will only be a matter of time until people request that the town allow bars. He has opposed the addition of spirits because he thinks it will bring a new set of problems to the town.

“It will ultimately require more oversight from the police department,” he said in a conversation with The Times on Monday.

Although he believes the legislation will pass, he doesn’t think Tisbury needs to offer the sale of liquor in order to be competitive with Island towns that do.

“I just don’t buy it,” Mr. Israel said.  

Selectman Larry Gomez told The Times that although he opposed the sale of beer and wine in earlier legislation when the town was dry, he hasn’t seen it cause any problems over the last few years, and he didn’t anticipate the sale of liquor being a problem either.

He said Vineyard Haven needed more restaurants, and more street traffic.

“We need the street traffic downtown,” Mr. Gomez said on Monday. “Does alcohol bring street traffic? I don’t know about that, but the restaurants will. We need to focus on more restaurants. Alcohol just follows suit.”

Jon Blau also believes there should be more restaurants in Vineyard Haven. Mr. Blau, who has been an Island business owner for over two decades, owns Copper Wok in Vineyard Haven, as well as Sharky’s Cantina in both Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, and Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Company and The Loft in Oak Bluffs.

“It’s really important to point out that a bottle of beer, a glass of wine, and a mixed drink have the same amount of alcohol in them,” he said in a conversation with The Times on Tuesday. “We’re not talking about anything crazy here. It’s a third option.”

Mr. Blau is fortunate because when a patron comes into Copper Wok looking for a martini, his staff can send them to one of his restaurants in Oak Bluffs or Edgartown. But this is not the case for other restaurants in Vineyard Haven.

He said that a lot of visitors, if they know the town doesn’t serve liquor, simply don’t come to Vineyard Haven in the first place; instead, they pick a town that has all of the options they’re looking for. People on vacation want options, and they expect it when they go out to dinner.

“It’s a decision in a lot of people’s mindsets,” Mr. Blau said.   

To him, it’s not a coincidence that there are such limited restaurant options in Vineyard Haven. “There are more restaurants on the harbor in Oak Bluffs than there are in downtown Vineyard Haven,” he said.

The biggest economic impact of prohibiting liquor is felt not by the town, but by its citizens — the hotel owners, retail owners, and restaurant owners.

“I didn’t expect it to be so visible, but there’s no doubt Copper Wok in Oak Bluffs or Edgartown would definitely be a more viable business,” he said.  

Mr. Blau said that owning a restaurant isn’t easy — nearly 90 percent of people fail in the first year they open. Food has the lowest profit margin, and liquor helps offset the expenses of running a restaurant. Coupled with further restrictions and the fact that business is seasonal, restaurants in Vineyard Haven face immense challenges.

“I think the most important thing is it’s going to allow the restaurants to have a choice that will help them stay more solvent,” Mr. Blau said.