Is There Life After a Liquor License?

As many successful restaurants are proving, operators don’t necessarily need a liquor license to survive anymore.
As many successful restaurants are proving, operators don’t necessarily need a liquor license to survive anymore. thinkstock

Two years ago, Chef Andrew Kochan reached a crossroads.

Along with his Marigold Kitchen colleague, Chef Tim Lanza, Kochan had the opportunity to purchase the 70-year-old Philadelphia establishment. 

In itself, that was a simple decision.

The Marigold Kitchen had emerged as a culinary treasure in the City of Brotherly Love, termed a “venerable dining room” by Zagat, and boasted a reputation few available-for-purchase restaurants could ever match.

There was, however, one hang-up: The upscale restaurant did not have a liquor license. 

“We could afford the business or the liquor license, but not both,” Kochan recalls.

While many full-service restaurateurs would rather quash a prospective deal than live without a liquor license, operating as a BYOB (bring your own bottle) restaurant need not be the death sentence so many perceive. 

In fact, highly regarded BYOB restaurants exist—and, in fact, thrive—in cities across the country. Chicago, for instance, hosts acclaimed spots like Ruxbin and goosefoot, while New York is peppered with BYOB stops ranging from casual ethnic restaurants to intimate neighborhood eateries.

For Kochan and Lanza, BYOB was their reality, and they were determined to make it work.

This is not to suggest, however, that the duo did not want a liquor license. A year after taking ownership, Kochan and Lanza explored obtaining a liquor license, eager to offer diners a more well-rounded culinary experience and capture the heightened profit margin liquor sales deliver.

But that effort quickly hit an unexpected roadblock. 

The historic Victorian townhouse that housed Marigold Kitchen exempted the restaurant from certain legislation. If Kochan and Lanza secured a liquor license, their “grandfather status” would evaporate, forcing a litany of capital improvements around issues such as ADA accessibility and multiple points of egress. 

“So we wouldn’t just be paying about $150,000 for the liquor license, but about $400,000 to get the space up to code as well,” Kochan says.

With that cost too much to bear and a liquor license off the table, the Marigold Kitchen partners had but one choice: to double down on life as a BYOB establishment. 

When diners now call to make reservations, Marigold Kitchen staff recommend wines that will not only complement the night’s 14- to 17-course tasting menu, but also spotlight specific varieties available for sale in Pennsylvania, a state with some strict liquor guidelines. A server who doubles as a sommelier, meanwhile, suggests compelling pairings for on-site diners. 


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