Friday, May 24, 2024

Whitney’s Cafe is on Wednesday’s License Commission agenda for a change of license type. (Photo: George Robinson via Google)

The License Commission is fixing decades worth of having slotting businesses into the wrong categories and then falsifying inspections, but its chairwoman – who has been reforming commission practices since coming aboard in January 2016 – and longtime executive director were vague on how the policy was justified.

In commission rules and regulations from at least 2008 to the passing of a new set July 7, a business selling alcohol to be consumed on the premises “must have a kitchen and provide food for patrons,” but that leaves out several places to get a drink in Cambridge that range from the Harvard Square dive bar Whitney’s Cafe (which has been pouring at least since the 1960s) to the avant-garde Lilypad performance space in Inman Square (which got its license only six years ago).

In a turnaround under new chairwoman Nicole Murati Ferrer, the commission issued its first “general-on-premises” license in July, only days after passing its revised rules and regulations. The state describes it simply as “a license that allows the sale of alcoholic beverages without food to patrons and customers, subject to all other relevant provisions of this chapter,” and Cambridge has been able to issue GOPs since around 1970.

Yelp reviews are clear that Whitney’s, which has a restaurant license, does not have food.

Instead, the city has forced “restaurant” licenses on businesses that aren’t restaurants, making it impossible for them to comply with accompanying requirements. Now letters have gone out to businesses believed to be operating improperly under “restaurant” licenses – because they don’t have kitchens – with Central Square’s Cantab Lounge converting in late April and Whitney’s coming up for a hearing Wednesday.

Lilypad will follow, Murati Ferrer said in an interview Monday. Executive director Elizabeth Lint was included in the interview.

Lint began with the commission in July 2005 and identifies herself as not just executive director, but as the commission’s counsel. Yet despite Lint’s nearly dozen years of institutional knowledge and the process Murati Ferrer ran to change local rules and regulations, neither could explain the thinking behind the city’s decades of giving businesses the wrong license and faking inspections, year after year, to keep the businesses operating despite the fact they were out of compliance.

“I can’t answer why”

Murati Ferrer said she couldn’t speak for decisions made by past commissioners, and Lint said that though she was familiar with state statutes – “I read the statute probably every day,” she said – she could not address commission actions over the past dozen years and over the course of five commission chairs. Her role as counsel, she said, was only that “if I’m asked a question, I’ll answer it.”

Their responses were equally vague about current events.

Even after the first general-on-premise license was issued in July, Murati Ferrer went on to chair a November meeting in which a new Central Square theater called The Thalia came for a pouring license.

Despite being presented clearly as “a theater and rehearsal space” that would offer only light fare, because “beer and wine is something that would complement the theater experience,” Murati Ferrer and interim police commissioner Christopher Burke, with Lint at the table, approved The Thalia for a restaurant alcohol pouring license instead of a GOP.

“I’d have to look back at the file. I can’t answer why I voted” that way, Murati Ferrer said.

Cantab Lounge converts

The license conversions have already produced some awkwardness.

When Cantab general manager Steve Ramsey came in April 26 to convert his restaurant-style pouring license into a general-on-premises license, it was a full eight years after he closed his kitchen.

“This has kind of been the practice for a little bit now?” Murati Ferrer asked Ramsey, referring to the lack of food service.

“Since 2009,” he replied.

“We’ll need an updated floor plan,” she said. “You’re changing the bar … ?”

“We’re not changing anything. The way it is now is the way it’s been,” Ramsey said.

Murati Ferrer kept on: “Okay, and where the kitchen area was, it’s going to be storage or … ?”

“It’s storage,” Ramsey said.

He confirmed May 1 that his kitchen has been storage for eight years, with food sales given up long ago because because they weren’t generating enough sales and we “weren’t reaching the [51] percent” of revenue from food called for under the restaurant license.

Despite going in every year since 2009 to renew, he said this year was the first time the commission advised him about the general-on-premises license, which he called “something new” the commission has instituted.

An inspection form for the Cantab Lounge notes a kitchen in 2010, the year after the bar turned the kitchen into storage. (Photo: Marc Levy)

What’s more, his inspections show him to be in compliance with the restaurant rules, with notes in type and handwriting referring falsely to a kitchen that kept him in compliance not just in 2010 and 2012, but during an inspection only two months ago.

When asked why there are only eight inspections in the Cantab file dating back to 1997, Lint said, “That’s what I found easily … they don’t all get inspected every year.”

More on the way

The Lilypad, like The Thalia, came to the commission saying explicitly it was “a cross between a performance venue and a rehearsal studio,” according to License Commission transcripts from 2011, yet “has applied for a new wine and malt beverages as a restaurant license.” At the time, attorney James Rafferty noted that its application was similar to those of the Brattle Theater and ImprovBoston; the Central Square Theater, Oberon and American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center are other businesses that could have received general-on-premises licenses over the years but were identified as restaurants instead – despite not being restaurants, and being unable to meet the required 51 percent standard for food sales.

Murati Ferrer declined to say how the businesses passed inspection over the years.

“I can’t speak to what my inspectors did or didn’t do,” she said. When pushed, she added, “I’m not going to tell you the content of my conversations with my employees. They’re personnel matters.”

Lilypad is an Inman Square performance space that was given a restaurant license by the License Commission to allow it to serve alcohol. (Photo: Lilypad)

Lint noted that before her arrival on the commission there was pressure in town to end the noise and violence of Cambridge’s bar scene. Groups such as the Harvard Square Defense Fund became active in the early 1990s, which is around when the last general-on-premises licenses were issued until this year, said a longtime Cambridge businessperson who has appeared before the commission over many years. People didn’t want bars, but the commission allowed businesses such as ManRay and the old Faces nightclub to be grandfathered in and go on doing business without kitchens, the person said, launching the decades of winking approvals and resulting fraudulent inspection documents.

What’s new

Since arriving in Cambridge, Murati Ferrer has seen a revamping of a liquor-licensing system that boosted the cost of some into the $400,000 range while creating others deemed non-transferable from one business to another and holding “no value.” Now the city has acknowledged that, though that practice too went on for decades, state law never allowed Cambridge to limit the value or transferability of liquor licenses.

She has also overseen the adoption of seven-day, 2 a.m. closings for restaurants and business pouring alcohol, which the commission had previously told owners was a category that didn’t exist in Cambridge. “We would have to have a hearing to approve that” new form of license, Lint told the owners of Kendall Square’s State Park in May 2013. Felipe’s Taqueria was granted such a license in October 2014 and had it taken away after the granting was reported; yet in November, seven-day, 2 a.m. licenses began being issued – another change downplayed by Murati Ferrer and Lint.

“I can’t speak to why commissioners were saying that,” Murati Ferrer said when asked about Lint’s assertion that granting seven-day, 2 a.m. closings would require a public hearing to create the category, when reintroducing general-on-premises licenses did not. The refusal to grant the seven-day, 2 a.m. license hours was more about them not being listed on the commission’s fee schedule, she suggested.

“I didn’t have that conversation with past commissioners,” she said. Yet Murati Ferrer arrived at a time when the commission was made up of longtime members: police commissioner Robert C. Haas was on the commission for nine years until retiring in March 2016, after the rules changes were presented for public comment; 17-year fire chief Gerald Reardon retired in March. And Lint remains after 12 years. Andrea Boyer has been chief licensing investigator for the commission since 1993.

Chairwoman Nicole Murati Ferrer has been reforming License Commission practices since her arrival in January 2016. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Process for changes

Adopting the general-on-premises licenses are “more in line with the law” and provide transparency for the public as well as more “clarity” for enforcement personnel, Murati Ferrer said.

“When I came, I looked at the laws that could be amended,” she said, describing a process that began with her knowledge of the industry and case law and included conversations with applicants and a look at the commission’s existing approach. Later, proposed changes were evaluated by the City Solicitor’s Office.

“One of my first questions was, ‘Why isn’t the GOP listed?’” Murati Ferrer recalled.

Yet over the course of the interview Monday, she said repeatedly that she couldn’t give the answer to that question.