Aug 18, 2023 - Business

Massachusetts bill aims to loosen liquor license citizenship requirement

Fernando Rosas, owner of Bono in East Boston, poses in his restaurant.

Fernando Rosas, owner of Bono, is one of several restaurateurs who support loosening citizenship requirements in the state's liquor license law. Photo: Steph Solis/Axios

Restaurants of all kinds can buy a liquor license in Massachusetts, a document that could cost well over a quarter-million dollars.

  • But the business owner can't be listed as the manager of record unless they're a U.S. citizen.

Driving the news: A bill aims to change that state law to let non-citizens who have legal status become the manager listed on a liquor license, a crucial requirement for businesses seeking approval from licensing boards.

Why it matters: Small business owners supporting the proposal say current law effectively excludes immigrant-owned enterprises and hamstrings American business owners who want to promote non-citizens to management positions.

  • The restrictions, they tell Axios, add red tape and expenses at a time when businesses are struggling to retain workers and keep costs down.

Flashback: The restrictions stem from a 1933 liquor law, which stated only citizens can obtain liquor licenses.

  • But Boston's licensing board started limiting liquor licenses to "bona fide citizens" as early as 1908, according to an annual report from the agency.

State of play: The bill, filed by state Sen. Patrick O'Connor (R-Weymouth), had multiple committee hearings in May. Lawmakers have until next year to move it forward.

  • The status quo is "antiquated," O'Connor told Axios. He said it makes "perfect common sense to be able to put this legislation forward."

Zoom in: Fernando Rosas, owner of Bono in East Boston, applied for a beer and wine license in 2021. He learned only after applying that he couldn't be the manager on record because he wasn't a citizen.

  • At the time, Rosas had applied for citizenship, but the pandemic delayed the approval process.

What they're saying: "I felt so stupid ... I didn't mean to hurt anybody or mean to waste anybody's time," Rosas told Axios. "I didn't mean to waste my money or time, either, but surely I did."

  • His business eventually received permission from the board when he made his wife, a citizen, the manager of record and majority-owner.

Yes, but: Thanks to Boston's cap on liquor licenses, Rosas still has not been able to secure an official license yet.

Between the lines: Stephanie Burke, co-owner of Lenny's Hideaway in Cohasset, brought the issue to O'Connor after learning she and her husband couldn't make a longtime employee their manager of record.

  • "I think that people will be surprised that this is a requirement and surprised that it's been under the radar for so long," Burke told Axios.
  • But just because the issue hasn't gotten much attention in recent years "doesn't mean it's not creating a lot of hardship and barriers for people," Burke said.
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