Opinions split on push to expand New Jersey’s liquor license laws

Lawmakers in Trenton are moving forward with a new bill to modernize New Jersey’s liquor laws - laws that have been around since the end of Prohibition.

Matt Trapani

Mar 9, 2023, 1:41 AM

Updated 493 days ago


Lawmakers in Trenton are moving forward with a new bill to modernize New Jersey’s liquor laws - laws that have been around since the end of Prohibition.
Some restaurant owners who currently only serve “bring your own” alcohol are embracing the plan. They say that liquor sales would give a needed boost to their bottom line.
“It’s stressful, you know? Long-term survival on most restaurants – most of their models are based on liquor sales,” says Ehen Ryan, chef and owner of Common Lot in Millburn. “This is not an easy industry to get into. You need to be passionate.”
Ryan and his wife opened Common Lot seven years ago in an old antique shop.
“We try to have fun. Our servers are very, very good. They enjoy working here,” Ryan says.
But Ryan says that the restaurant’s profit margin is still thin. He says that he wishes he could upgrade the BYOB restaurant with a liquor license to serve wine and cocktails along with dinner.
“This outdated license system is really prohibitive in the growth of the industry,” Ryan says.
Millburn has about 20,000 residents. There are 30 restaurants but just three liquor licenses. Ryan says twice he tried to snag one of those licenses for Common Lot, but both times he was outbid.
“Something needs to happen, for the progress of the state,” Ryan says.
Ryan says he agrees with Gov. Phil Murphy’s plan to overhaul the liquor license laws, which would gradually end the town-by-town limits on licenses over the next six years.
“It is time to modernize New Jersey’s liquor license. For the future – not for myself, but for my young team,” says Ryan. “They will never be able to afford a $500,000 license at the get-go. So their dream of ever owning their own restaurant in the state of New Jersey realistically won’t happen.”
But the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association worries that a flood of newly issued licenses would devalue the ones currently held by thousands of bars and restaurants.
“We’re saying go after the liquor licenses that are dormant because there are 1,400 of those. Those are called pocket licenses,” says Dana Lancellotti, of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association. “If we can get those 1,400 dormant licenses out into the market, that’s a great place to start.”
But Ryan disagrees with this point.
“It doesn’t solve the problem. It keeps the status quo the same,” he says.
Ryan says he is nearing the end of his 10-year lease to buy on the Common Lot property. He says that if he can’t get a liquor license by then, he might leave the state.
“Could we really say goodbye to our investment? And the team? That’s hard. But it’ll probably eventually happen, yeah. I would take this investment and go elsewhere…Until the laws are changed. I’ll take my money and I’ll go to another state,” Ryan says.
Lawmakers have yet to set a date for a hearing for the bill. It is sponsored by Bergen County Democratic state Sen. Gordon Johnson.

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