I have been an avid practitioner of Brazilian Jiujitsu for almost half a decade. The rules are simple: you win if your opponent cries "uncle" after you've shredded his ligaments or locked him in a choke hold. Occasionally, you win if the other guy simply passes out from being choked or snaps a bone due to their unwillingness to admit defeat.
Like boxing, there are weight classes. Unlike boxing, there is a separate section of competition known as the "Open/Absolute class." As the name implies, there's no weight restrictions in this section. Murphy's law ever-present, you'll likely face a 350-pound, zero-percent-body-fat opponent dripping with badassery. Your favorite hog-smoking author, on the other hand, is a 160-pound jelly doughnut.
Meeting with the Community Board is basically like fighting in the Absolute Division. Win, lose, or draw, it's gonna hurt. You don't really engage so much as struggle for survival. And somewhere in the middle of all this, all you want to do is curl into a ball and whimper for your mommy.
Welcome to the Neighborhood
A Community Board is primarily responsible for local review of land use, community budget allocation, and making sure their areas of influence receive proper municipal services like street cleaning. For the most part, the only industry that deals with Community Boards is the hospitality business.
You might believe that the board has actual power over big-time real estate, but you'd be wrong. In New York at least, if a big-time condo developer wants to put up a honking 800-unit building in an area, despite the fact that it will completely overshadow local residences and tax existing school infrastructure, that bitch is going up. Condo developers have millions to throw around in political capital—a restaurant's efforts to do the same would barely show up as a rounding error. So most of the Community Board's decision-making powers come down to restaurants.
I support the Board's concerns. Their job, which they serve on an unpaid, volunteer basis, is to protect a neighborhood's quality of life. Having a bunch of bars open up in your sleepy little neighborhood is likely gonna piss you off, even if you happen to love bars. Drunk dudes swirling around your neighborhood littering, shouting, and singing Hotel California is more than most people can bear. This is not something I've ever had to deal with living in my decidedly unsexy neighborhood of northern Flushing; hipster bars are most certainly not scouting out the real estate in our area.
But my restaurant is in Bushwick, where new bars come in all the time. Now, I thought my restaurant was zoned safely within Community Board (CB) 4, which covers Bushwick, but instead I found myself well in the territorial oversight of CB1, which oversees Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and East Williamsburg, all places loaded with bars, and thus full of Board members against them.
New York City Community Boards don't have the power to deny you a liquor license, but it does have the power to voice their concerns to the State Liquor Authority (SLA), the governing body which issues those licenses. The SLA isn't necessarily beholden to the Board, but it does take their recommendations seriously.
In fairness, the Community Board gets a bad rap. Most of the volunteer members are very reasonable folks who are looking to find a middle ground between economy-boosting entrepreneurs and concerned community members. When you hear horror stories of shouting and finger-wagging, the culprits typically aren't the Board members at all—they're the community groups invited to state their opposition.
In theory, a denial by the Board doesn't mean you won't get a license; it just means that they'll be fighting tooth and nail to keep you from getting one. The way they see it, the community existed long before you came and it will continue long after your shop closes and becomes a Starbucks. They can remain pissed longer than you can remain financially solvent. So it's a good idea to not draw their ire.
Darned if You Do, Darned if You Don't
I thought I'd get along fine with CB1. My restaurant is in an industrial manufacturing part of town, blocks away from the nearest residences. There's no domestic life around me to bother!
But I didn't take into account the interest groups created to ensure the protection of manufacturing.
The East Williamsburg Valley Industrial Development Corp. (EWVIDCO) is a city organization tasked with the preservation of manufacturing and industrial business in north Brooklyn. That means that if a building is used for industrial work, they want it to stay that way, and to make sure greedy landlords don't jack up rents to kick out tenants and make room for big-time condo developers.
CB1 takes EWVIDCO's recommendations very seriously. I just heard tell of an organic taco joint's trouble getting their beer license because they were taking over a former factory.
Legally speaking, my space is a restaurant. The certificate of occupancy since before World War 1 has read "diner/restaurant." But it hasn't been a restaurant for years—it was mostly storage for my landlord. But ever hopeful, I figured that since I wasn't displacing anyone, I should be alright.
I was still concerned. So a buddy of mine—who sits on the Board and owns a bar—got me a meeting with EWVIDCO to make sure we were on the same page. In fact, EWVIDCO and I share two major goals.
1) Keep the neighborhood centered on industrial manufacturing. Considering that I'm doing just the opposite, this may sound odd. But one of the reasons I love my space is because it lets me smoke hogs without bothering residents. Additionally, as long as the area is zoned for commercial, not residential use, Mr. 800-unit condo developer will have a much harder time throwing cash at my landlord and paying me a pittance to get out. That means your friendly neighborhood hog smoker can stay put.
2) Developing small food manufacturing. EWVIDCO has a dedicated team that works with folks that want to get into the retail food space, like me. I don't know a single barbecue guy who doesn't want to get into the packaged sauce business, a difficult but lucrative market. (Unless you're one of those Central Texas stylists who think that sauce is for sinners. But even there: Lubbock, TX, where I went to college, was the birthplace of Stubb's barbecue sauce, which does over $20 million in sales a year with a staff of 20.)
Behold the Sacrificial Lamb
My two favorite coffee hideaways are Mountain Province near the Swine and Budin in Greenpoint. Budin is, in my opinion, the single best cafe in New York. Her airy Nordic elegance and genius-roasted beans are a refuge from my loud and dusty industrial park. It's peaceful like a shrine there. When I grow up, I want to build a similar type of space.
Shortly before my Community Board meeting, I learned Budin was scheduled for the same day. I found out because Crystal Pei, Budin's owner, was hyperventilating behind the bar. This was Budin's second time before the Board. Last time it was for a full liquor license so the bar could offer aquavit to a small set of customers at night. The application was turned down. So this time they were going for the less threatening beer and wine license.
For every sedate craft cocktail bar that applies for a liquor license, you'll find a dozen louder frat-boy bars. So when the Community Board sees a full liquor application, they more or less assume that you're aiming to sling Jägerbombs. (Budin was not, but tell that to the locals.)
"You got nothing to worry about." Crystal assured me. "I'm the one who's about to be raked over the coals." While I'm disappointed I couldn't find a restaurant in Greenpoint, in retrospect, it saved me a lot of headaches. Greenpoint Avenue is saturated with bars and the local population has had enough. What was once a quiet, peaceful, family-friendly neighborhood is now increasingly threatened by Jägerbombers.
The Board meeting started on March evening at 6 p.m. Despite the freezing cold outside, our small unventilated room, packed to the gills, was steaming. The inquisition began.
Budin had already agreed to stipulations from the Board on opening times and limiting use of their outdoor space. But the neighborhood activists were not having any of it. There was no middle ground. No workaround. No more bars!
"You're gutting our neighborhood," screamed one person. "I'm tired of seeing our community destroyed," shouted another. Now, if this ire were sent my way, I could see myself—and my 3,000-square-foot beer hall—as a deserving target. But Budin? That place has all the rowdiness of an Amish knitting class.
I've been yelled at before. By now, being called the scum of the earth is par for the course. But Crystal literally sat there for over an hour being denounced as the devil. Even the members of the Board, who by design must be skeptical about new businesses, were calling for more reasonable voices. (You know you're in a shitstorm when Board members are feeling sorry for you.) In the end, Budin's application was deferred to the judgements of the SLA. After an hour of abuse, judgment was tabled for another day.
Any Last Words?
At 11 p.m., my turn finally arrived. We had just endured another hour-long session about a concert venue smack-dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood and some open-and-shut renewals for a sports bar and some restaurants.
My judges and jury were a table of four: a friend, two other guys, and an elderly Jewish gentleman who, despite my rather un-kosher business model, turned out to be the friendliest of the bunch.
After all this build-up, I hate to disappoint you with straightforward good news, but my application went just fine. Despite one cranky Board member who was sick of my naive answers to his questions, the case was easy: my restaurant was too far away from any residences to bother anyone. The Board isn't giving me any trouble.
And Budin? Their beer and wine license was eventually approved. Isn't a happy ending nice?
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