BYOB proponents: Put it to a vote

Attention: open in a new window. PrintE-mail

Restaurateur Sharon Hoffman, who owns Captain Bob’s restaurant with her husband Chris, believes BYOB would help invigorate Ocean City’s restaurant scene and bring new business to town.  Restaurateur Sharon Hoffman, who owns Captain Bob’s restaurant with her husband Chris, believes BYOB would help invigorate Ocean City’s restaurant scene and bring new business to town.

Debate continues about benefits, drawbacks

The petitioners who are collecting signatures to put a BYOB question on the November ballot have about a week left to gather the minimum 747 names.

Asked how many have been collected so far, Sharon Hoffman jokes, “Between one and 800.”

Like others on the five-member team of petitioners, Hoffman is a restaurateur (she and husband Chris own Captain Bob's). Like many restaurateurs throughout the city, she believes that permitting patrons to bring wine or beer to restaurants would invigorate the dining scene and enliven the community’s downtown. Hoffman will not venture a guess about the outcome of the campaign, but says that people on both sides of the issue have signed the petition.

“I’ve had people who said, ‘I’m signing it, and I’m voting no,’” says Hoffman. “A lot of people think they deserve the right to vote on it, and not have a select few say that the people of Ocean City don’t want it.”

The city administration, including Mayor Jay Gillian and members of City Council, have come out strongly against the initiative, which would ask residents if they think spirits may be consumed at restaurants meeting certain qualifications (the restaurants must have wait staff, serve meals on covered tables, and if they are on the Boardwalk, have an entrance that leads to the street).

Hoffman acknowledges the high emotions that come with the issue.

“I think a lot of it is the fear factor. People are afraid of change, and that’s normal. But they don’t know the city is changing right in front of them. Downtown, there are stores for rent and stores for sale. We need to bring more people to town and keep them in town,” she said.

With BYOB, she believes, “We might be able to draw them from Ventnor, Somers Point, Margate – get them to dine here and shop here. I think it would be great for the town.”

All communities in New Jersey may have BYOB unless the municipal government explicitly prohibits it, according to Jeffrey Sutherland, attorney for the Ocean City Restaurant Association, which is spearheading the petition drive. Despite the perception that BYOB has been legally prohibited since the days of the founding fathers, Sutherland says, this initiative would repeal an ordinance that was passed in Ocean City in the mid-1980s.

“When the city was incorporated, it banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol but did not refer to consumption, public or private,” he says. “A law in the 1950s banned drinking on the beach, which implies there was no law prior to that. As far as I know, the first written law was in 1984.”

Sutherland, a resident of Ocean City, also believes BYOB would stimulate business, particularly in the downtown.

“You can see how few people there are on a Saturday night,” says Sutherland. “The initiative is trying to get the foot traffic to help the businesses.”

Richard Perniciaro, of the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College, says BYOB could be a mixed blessing, bringing an economic boost but compromising Ocean City’s brand as a strictly-family resort.

“There’s a trade-off,” he says. “For people who think the downtown needs something –there’s not enough foot traffic, the town dies at 8 – I could see being in favor of it. Without it, they’ll stay the way they are. But Ocean City is already a very successful tourism town in many respects, and they don’t want to do harm to that.”

Public conversation about the issue often includes references to a small borough in Camden County. In the late 1990s, BYOB helped usher in a downtown renaissance in Collingswood.

In a 2008 report, the New York Times cited the influx of new restaurants on Haddon Avenue as the linchpin of the community’s revitalization. At the time, Collingswood Mayor James Maley said that he and other officials “pushed on all fronts” to find new sources of revenue for the town, and restaurants were it. “They’ve become our anchors, with retail coming in around them,” Maley said at the time.

Reached last week, Maley said BYOB continues to bring visitors to Collingswood, and could be “huge” for Ocean City.

“BYOB has not made us the wild, wild West,” says Maley, who owns a home in Ocean City. “We’ve had no crime or troubles that were related to BYOB at all, and it creates a very nice downtown.”

When Collingswood began its revitalization, some residents pushed for liquor licenses. “It’s a numbers game; licenses are limited by population, and you can only get one for every 5,000 people,” says Maley. “We would have had three at the maximum. I thought we could do better with more restaurants.” In the past decade, he says, more than a dozen restaurants have opened in the community.

“They bring thousands of people every week to our downtown,” he says.

He has closely followed the debate in Ocean City, Maley says.

“Everybody has to vote the way they want to; what people’s hometown means to them is very important. But I don’t think people need to be concerned about the quality of life in their neighborhoods,” he said. “They’re not going to have young men coming up from Wildwood to drink beer on the Boardwalk.”

The borough’s communications director, Cass Duffey, says BYOB “has been a great niche for us. It’s a big draw for people who come over the bridge. They refer to Collingswood as the ‘BYOB restaurant row’; that’s the marketing hook.”

A Haddon Avenue restaurant owner, John Barone of Villa Barone, says BYOB also makes dining out more affordable.

“People can, for example, go out twice a week rather than once a month. In this economy, it’s better to do BYOB.” Asked if there has been any push for liquor licenses in the borough – a concern of BYOB opponents in Ocean City – Barone said, “No. I think if there was a referendum for that today, most people would say no.”

Joanne Bernardini, a proponent of BYOB, agrees that Ocean City could take its cue from Collingswood.

“We’ve lost some really well-established family stores – Kabat’s men’s store, Leon’s shoe store, Hickman’s Seafood. All family-owned business in town for 50 years or so; these stores are now gone, and what are replacing them? We have nail salons and consignment shops and second-hand clothes stores. They’re honest businesses making a living, but we’re losing vibrant stores in the heart of downtown.” In the evenings, she says, ‘Cars are bumper to bumper to spend their dollars in restaurants out of town.”

Hoffman says her business has contracted over the years, and she and her husband work 14 hours a day, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., to make what they once earned during a 9-to-1 breakfast shift.

“On a typical weekend, we make 250 breakfasts. At dinner, we might serve, at most, 30 to 35 people.” With increasing costs of food, insurance and other business expenses, “It’s getting harder and harder,” says Hoffman.

While she advocates BYOB as a way to jumpstart the local economy, Hoffman adds that if the issue is rejected by voters, she will “respect that and step back.”

“But if it doesn’t get put on the ballot,” she adds, “this is a fight I will stick with. Whether people want it or not, they should have the chance to vote.”


blog comments powered by Disqus