Independent Restaurant Refuses $4,000 License for BYOB

Rachel Smith is fighting against her city's $4,000 liquor license, and setting an example for operators around the country. (A group of friends celebrate over a glass of wine)

Industry coverage tends to focus on major chains and national news, leaving smaller operations out of the wider conversation. And it shouldn’t. Independent operators are the backbone of our $2.5T industry; they provide necessary jobs and form the foundations of their individual communities.

Unfortunately, they also bear the brunt of economic recessions (and do so with a fraction of the support and resources of their corporate counterparts). Bar & Restaurant is making a concerted effort to celebrate our independent operators, and offer them real solutions for their troubles.

One such restaurateur is Rachel Smith, who recently launched a Change.Org petition to allow restaurants to host BYOB without a hefty license fee. She's currently has 146 out of 200 votes.

Smith and her husband took over a 100-year old house in the historic town of Roswell, Georgia, and turned it into the buzzy Shanghai Street Food & Bar. The popular venue only opened in 2019, but quickly won customers over with their scratch-made menu of Chinese favorites (and great drinks).

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Like all operators, 2020 was a devastating year for the Smith. Her venue adopted a take-out only business model overnight, when Rosewell went into lockdown last March. Almost one year on, and their sales are still down more than 50% from where they should be.

And now they face a new challenge: a liquor license.

The City of Roswell charges approximately $4,000 for a full liquor license, and unusually, requires one for any establishment to offer a BYOB option. Typically, BYOB is an attractive perk of no liquor license, as guests are drawn in by the cost-effectiveness.

“Thus far, we haven’t heard of anywhere outside of Roswell enforcing a full liquor license in order to offer the BYOB option,” says Smith, who opted not to renew her license out of necessity. To put this into context, Atlanta, Georgia offers a full liquor license for $5,000 for the year, with a half-year prorated option of $2,500. They also have a “Bottle House” license for $2,000, which will allow venues to offer BYOB. Roswell offers no such variations.

After learning that some city council members were in favor of amending the liquor license regulations, Smith launched an online petition show to lobby the local government and make a positive change for all of the small businesses in her town. While her situation hasn’t been resolved (yet), Smith’s efforts serve as a reminder to operators across the country: you can make a change.

We spoke to her about her experience, and how it’s relevant to other operators throughout the country.   

Is a $4,000 liquor license feasible for your business right now?

We simply do not have that money right now. It’s not a matter of wanting to keep the money to ourselves. It’s that our income every month goes to labor costs, food costs, rent, and utilities. At best, we can pay those fees, but most months, we cannot even cover those expenses.

How would BYOB affect your business?

Many of our patrons live within walking distance of our location. We are also within the confines of downtown Roswell’s historic district, where people can walk the streets with open containers. Because of this, a large portion of our patronage is foot traffic. We are currently losing that business to other larger restaurants downtown [who can afford the license] . Just last Friday alone, we had seven different tables walk out because we weren’t able to allow alcohol on site. It left us with only one dine-in table for the evening.

What inspired you to launch your Change.org petition?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the people of Roswell, it’s that they care and will advocate for you. They’ve fought time and again to support us and keep us open, showing up on weeks in which their influx of patronage was what allowed us to make payroll. I wanted to be transparent with them and explain why we temporarily discontinued our liquor license, but I didn’t want to do so without an alternative option. When I learned that BYOB wasn’t permitted, I deferred to creating a petition so that our patrons would have a course of action to be heard.

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How has the response been?

The public support was overwhelming. Within a day, it was shared over 20 times, and eventually made its way back to me by someone else sharing it. Most people were alarmed that it was even necessary, that laws existed that prohibited us from offering this to begin with. 

Had you ever considered lobbying the government before?

I previously worked in public education, and I quickly learned that, although most systems are democratic in nature and are under the jurisdiction of elected officials, democracy will fail without the voices of their constituents continuing to be heard throughout their terms. Previously, my only involvement in local politics was as an educator, but I learned then that there is power in numbers.

What have you learned from this experience, that other restauranteurs can benefit from?

When you provide consistently good service, food, and experiences, people naturally want to come back to you. The community that you serve will rise up to support you, but you must have a clear, concise, and effective method of getting them involved. Rallying up crowds without a course of action for them to follow will not bring about change. Involve yourself in the local government, learn how policy changes occur, and reverse engineer an effective method that allows your patrons to advocate for that outcome.

Rachel Smith is also a musician and the Executive Director of SongFarm, a nonprofit that brings music mentorship and education to underserved high schools. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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