T.T.’s, River Gods owners paying the price of reforms removing liquor licenses’ value
The liquor license for the T.T. the Bear’s Place nightclub cost $60,000 in 1973, which means owner Bonney Bouley paid the equivalent of $343,382 in today’s dollars. Over at the restaurant River Gods, also in Central Square, Jackie Linnane set up shop in 2001 with a license that brought costs of around $120,000, which means she paid more than $167,000 in today’s dollars.
Today their licenses are worth nothing.
With both establishments shuttered, the women report desperate, ongoing attempts to sell their licenses and recoup investments in an environment that has changed radically since July 7, when new rules were enacted by the License Commission and things turned upside-down for longtime license holders.
Chairwoman Nicole Murati Ferrer led the reforms, saying Cambridge had been operating out of compliance with state law for decades. The changes were made with approval by the city’s Law Department and outside counsel, though the commission has its own legal adviser in executive director Elizabeth Lint – and the commission went on telling restaurateurs at least through April, long after reforms were underway, that they must buy another business’ license.
Seeking a solution
“I have tried to find a buyer for my license in every way possible,” Bouley said. “When I speak with anyone, they ask me why they would every buy mine or anyone’s license when there are licenses available they don’t have to pay for.”
“Brokers won’t even retain us, because they’ve told us [anyone] can just go to the city and apply for a license and get one,” Linnane said.
Bouley was before the License Commission on Wednesday pleading not for six more months to sell the license, because she thinks it’s hopeless, but for a delay before the license is stripped from her so the commission can bring in longtime city license holders like herself and Linnane to come up with a solution that levels the playing field.
“I was relying on the sale of my liquor license for my retirement. I’m in poor health, and require an oxygen mask,” Bouley told commissioners. “It was something I invested in. I also invested in this city. I played by the rules. I wanted the city to be proud of me.”
Linnane, who worried about what will happen when her own suddenly worthless license is called for cancellation in two months, echoed those pleas. “Instead of canceling Bonney’s license, can we just get some support here and try to work something out?” she asked. “I thought the License Commission would be more supportive to people like us, and I feel that’s not the case.”
The pocket license
Ultimately, the commissioners voted 2-1 to give Bouley another six months before her license was taken away and canceled, though they did so without committing to any kind of process that might help her or other business owners in their situation. T.T.’s and River Gods were beloved establishments priced out of their locations – Linnane in a simple lease negotiation, Bouley in a more complicated rent surge after the Sater family bought the property holding its own Middle East clubs and her T.T.’s for $7.1 million in December 2014. That brought accompanying sudden, gargantuan mortgage payments, and an accompanying jump in rent demands. “They had upped the rent $3,000. I was already paying $8,500,” Bouley has said. “If you did the figures, you couldn’t fit enough people in there to pay the lease.”
After her club closed in July 2015, Bouley went about the sale of her license, bought in 1973 from the closed Pearl Street Cafe. There’s added importance because she holds a “pocket license” – so long as she has her license, the new proprietors at T.T.’s 10 Brookline St. address can’t serve alcohol. (The new proprietors are the Saters, who opened a club called Sonia there.) But people who express an initial interest in buying the license, even for Bouley’s recent fire-sale price of $35,000, back out upon learning they can get a equivalent license for free.
Set back by system
Linnane, though upset about losing her 125 River St. space in July 2016, became even more upset this week upon realizing what it meant that she’d spent that money in 2001 to buy the alcohol license from the defunct Charles River Sports Bar, directed by the License Commission under what she now calls an “illegal” system: “I could have used that money to buy the building instead of paying for a liquor license,” she said Thursday, meaning River Gods would still be open today.
“I was told the only way I was permitted to get a license was to buy one, which I did,” Linnane said, describing the five years of “night and day” work that followed to pay back the loan. “It’s shocking. The way they’re acting now is shocking too.”
Murati Ferrer, listened Wednesday to the testimony of Bouley, Linnane and Caroline Enright, general manager at River Gods, but voted to revoke Bouley’s license anyway because “I’m concerned about the law and the public need” and that with the pocket license, “no new place can come into the premises.” She was reminded from the audience that the location was an active all-age music club and rentable event hall. It was interim police commissioner Brent B. Larrabee and acting fire chief Gerard E. Mahoney who overrode the chairwoman, giving Bouley another six months and raising the question of might happen in that time.
No action seen
City councillor Nadeem Mazen and an aide for councillor Jan Devereux attended the Wednesday meeting. Previously, councillor Leland Cheung had expressed concern over how changes to liquor licensing could hurt small-business owners and put an “undue financial burden” on restaurateurs. At a June 23 hearing of a council subcommittee, Murati Ferrer agreed “some license values will go down,” according to meeting minutes.
Mazen said he wasn’t immediately stirred to action in his final months in office by what he saw Wednesday. Though deflating artificial bubbles is always a good thing, he said that what happened to Bouley and Linnane was an unfortunate consequence of a bubble’s collapse. “I wish I’d been aware so we could have deflated the bubble in a well-planned way,” Mazen said.
Enright estimated there were more than 200 license holders in Cambridge who would be encountering the problem sooner or later. “At some point, people will want to get out of the business,” she said.
“When Elizabeth Warren speaks about the system being rigged and the odds being stacked against us, who knew this would happen in the city of Cambridge? Who knew this would happen to two women who’ve so hard and invested so much in the city?” Enright told commissioners. “Surely the city of Cambridge is better than this.”
This post was updated Nov. 15, 2017, to include language encompassing the cost of an alcohol pouring license and of installing a kitchen at 125 River St., as demanded by the city in 2001.