Alcohol helps fuel Vineyard Haven revival

Police say no problems reported, while restaurant and inn owners report happy customers.

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Kelsey Donaldson-Lang, lead bartender at Copper Wok, pours the first dirty martini at the restaurant, and the first in Vineyard Haven since voters approved all-alcohol licenses in town in June of this year. Alcohol has given the restaurant and Main Street a boost. — Rich Saltzberg

Updated 11/16

Alcohol appears to have been a factor in a resurgence of Main Street in Vineyard Haven after town voters approved the sales in April, according to restaurants and business owners.

While there are few firm numbers to prove an uptick in business, Copper Wok owner J.B. Blau told The Times that his restaurant benefited greatly once it received its all-alcohol license.

“From hour one, there was a noticeable effect,” he said. “We did not have to send anyone out of town this summer.”

In past years customers would come into the restaurant, ask for a mixed drink, and be disappointed, Mr. Blau said. “They’d get frustrated and walk out,” he said.

Overall sales at the restaurant were up 10 to 13 percent over last year, Mr. Blau said with liquor sales about 12 percent of Copper Wok bottom line.

Jill Gillick, general manager of the Black Dog Tavern, said there was a slight increase in business this year, but she’s not sure it’s attributable to serving mixed drinks. “People definitely like the idea that they can get a gin and tonic, and not just beer and wine,” she said. The restaurant already served beer and wine, so the addition of alcohol has likely just shifted dollars, not added any more revenue, Ms. Gillick told The Times.

The restaurant still gets some pushback from customers when they’re told they have to order food to go with their drink, a town regulation that dates back to allowing beer and wine licenses. “We have people who want to get a quick drink while they’re waiting for the ferry,” she said.

Anecdotally, Ms. Gillick said having more restaurants in Vineyard Haven has kept more people in town rather than going to Oak Bluffs. The real test will be the off-season, she said.

“It might be more telling to see what Vineyard Haven people are going to do,” she said. “Will they stay in town because they can get a martini?”

Susan Goldstein, co-owner of Mansion House, said her business advertises that people can walk to the beach, to restaurants, and to the ferry. “We tell them to leave the car in America,” she said. “Our returning guests are obviously delighted that they can walk next door and get a gin and tonic, or whatever it is that is their favorite thing to drink.”

The same is true for Charles Davis of Charles & Charles MV, an inn on Summer Street.

“People who come every year, their faces light up,” Mr. Davis said. “They can’t believe it.” Previously, he would have to tell customers looking for a restaurant recommendation that if they went out, they wouldn’t be able to get a cocktail. “There would be a puzzled look on their faces, and you would have to explain the whole thing to them,” he said.

One year ago, The Times published a story asking, “What’s happened to Main Street?” Well, that bleak outlook no longer seems to apply.

There have been a lot more people downtown, and parking has been at a premium, Mr. Davis said. “This summer there was no parking; you’d have to take your bike downtown,” he said. “There were no parking spots — only when the boats were canceled. That’s unheard-of.”

Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, said there is no data yet, but the feedback has been positive. “People are staying in town, which is what Tisbury has needed,” Ms. Gardella said. “It’s given us an opportunity to showcase the town.”

Elaine Barse, owner of the Green Room and vice president of the Vineyard Haven Business Association, said the restaurants downtown have been more crowded. On Sunday, with the storm starting, every table in La Soffitta was full, she said.

“It’s nice to see. I’ve noticed an uptick in restaurant activity at night,” she said.

Ms. Barse also reported a strong year of traffic and sales in her store, which features upscale clothing on one floor and skateboarding gear on the other. “It wasn’t crazy busy, but it’s probably one of the best summers we’ve had,” she said. “If you have people in the restaurants, you’ll have people wandering around, going into shops.”

Things were so bleak a year ago, Peter Simon, owner of Simon Gallery, considered shuttering his Main Street gallery. Over the summer, he had the best season in years. He gave credit to two new restaurants — La Soffitta and Mikado, both of which have all-alcohol licenses — and the new Vineyard Vines shop. “I’d say we had a much better year this past year,” Mr. Simon said. “You can’t attribute it all to alcohol. It was a combination of factors, but alcohol certainly didn’t hurt.”

Not everyone was singing the praises of the switch to serving hard liquor. Seth Gambino, owner of La Choza, a burrito shop on Main Street, spoke against the bylaw before it passed. He said he fears that eventually the restaurants will be back asking for bars. (Right now, regulations require patrons to purchase food with their drinks.) “I’ve seen people stumble out, but that could have happened drinking beer or wine as well,” Mr. Gambino said.

Police Chief Daniel Hanavan told The Times there has been no increase in drunken driving or disorderly conduct, as had been predicted. “We’ve had no problems,” he said. The chief attributes the lack of problems to customers being required to order food. “Business owners in Vineyard Haven are responsible. They value their licenses and want to do the right thing.”

Selectman Tristan Israel, another outspoken critic of the change, is happy for the business community, but remains skeptical.

“I’m concerned five or six years from now, it will be irresistible to not have bars,” he said. “I’m in favor of keeping Tisbury with its own identity, and keeping it different from Oak Bluffs. That’s just me. I like the family atmosphere in town.”

Selectman Melinda Loberg said she’s noticed there are more people downtown. “It’s nice to see,” she said. “In the evenings, people are staying. They’re going to restaurants and they’re walking the streets. I imagine it spills over to other businesses.”

Mr. Davis said it’s given Main Street a chance to shine. “I always tell people, the best shops on the Island, where people shop, is Vineyard Haven,” he said. “It feels like downtown, not just T shirt shops … Vineyard Haven is the hub. Now it’s coming into its own, and I think alcohol had a huge part of that.”

Editor’s note: Story updated to correct spelling of Elaine Barse’s name.