July 28, 2005

Pennsylvania Restaurant Owners Have Mixed Reactions to BYOB Policy

Jul. 28--On their way back from 5-year-old son Gregory's art camp last Friday, Matthew and Christine Zanowiak of Millersville stopped for dinner at Cafe East, a sushi restaurant in Centerville.

After sitting down, Zanowiak popped over to the liquor store for a bottle of wine to have with their meal.

"At the risk of sounding cheap, it is a lot cheaper," he says.

The Zanowiaks were one of the only customers to take advantage of the restaurant's bring-your-own-bottle policy.

"I don't see many people doing it, but we've done it frequently," says Zanowiak. "Mostly in Chinese restaurants."

Bringing your own wine or beer to restaurants is a handy, although often overlooked, option at restaurants that don't serve alcohol. Restaurant owners view it as a way to please their customers, while avoiding the expense of a liquor license.

Yet, the practice raises hackles for some restaurateurs who sell liquor and local officials who try to regulate alcohol.

A casual review of local restaurant advertisements reveals several promoting BYOB policies. The Pennsylvania Liquor Board oversees liquor licenses but leaves it up to local municipalities to regulate BYOBs, according to Molly McGowan, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

For restaurant owners, establishing a BYOB policy can be an easy way to attract customers without springing for a liquor license.

"People tend to spend more money on food because they don't have to spend a whole lot of money on wine," says Tina Ko, part-owner of Cafe East.

Since most customers don't bring their own wine, those who do can often be assured of a quiet evening.

"You don't have to worry about people being drunk here," says Zanowiak. "If you go out for a nice evening, you don't have to worry about a table of really loud people."

Like most BYOB restaurants, Cafe East is ready to cater to customers who bring in their own alcohol. They stock wine glasses, ice buckets and even sake cups for people that bring the Japanese rice wine to go with their sushi.

"We provide everything except the bottle," says Ko.

Cafe East is especially convenient for BYOBers because it is only three doors away from a liquor store.

Ko looked into getting her own liquor license several years ago, but since licenses can cost $70,000 to $100,000, Ko concluded that she couldn't afford it. In most cases, a new restaurant can only get a liquor license by buying an existing one from another restaurant.

Jack Tran, manager of Jasmine Tea House, says his restaurant started a BYOB policy when he determined that getting a liquor license was too expensive.

"(BYOB) has been pretty much a common practice," he says. "People are getting used to it."

Even restaurants that have a liquor license may allow customers to bring their own bottles, although they'll usually charge a corking fee. At Symposium in East Hempfield Township, customers who bring their own wine have to pay a $10 corking fee.

Robert Miller, general manager and executive chef, says he gets roughly 25 requests a year from customers wanting to bring their own wine, but adds that he is happy to comply with them.

"With me, I figure if the people want to bring their own wine and drink it, I'm making a happy customer," says Miller.

But not everyone is excited about BYOB. Some restaurants with a liquor license resent the practice, even if diners pay a fee to drink their own wine.

At Strawberry Hill restaurant, 128 W. Strawberry St., don't expect a warm greeting if you show up with your own bottle of wine, no matter who you are.

Owner Dennis Kerek is adamantly anti-BYOB.

"We've had very good customers ask if they can they bring in a bottle of wine, and we say no," says Kerek.

Kerek says his restaurant takes pride in helping a customer match wine with food.

Bottles of wine at the restaurant cost from $35 to several thousand dollars, he says.

"We think that if you're getting the value of all that expertise in that resource and selection of your wine, it is not a bad thing to be able to get a markup on the wine," says Kerek.

Some representatives of the restaurant industry are against the practice on other grounds.

"We, of course, oppose BYOBs because of the lack of control," says Ray Hottenstein, chairman of the board of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Industry Association. "They are taking their profits, but have no responsibility."

Hottenstein, owner of Greenfield Inn Restaurant, says BYOB restaurants make the restaurant industry look bad because they don't oversee the alcohol in their restaurants like liquor licensees do.

"As most all licensees are, I'm very responsible that way," he says. "I don't want to see anybody get hurt."

The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation actively promotes BYOB restaurants, recently highlighting 15 new BYOBS in Center City and surrounding neighborhoods.

However, Hottenstein says the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association wants tighter restrictions on BYOB restaurants, and some Lancaster County municipalities are taking their own look at them.

Lancaster City has an ordinance regulating BYOB restaurants, and East Lampeter Township -- where Hottenstein's Greenfield Inn Restaurant is located -- has a section in its zoning ordinance related to BYOB restaurants.

Nevertheless, Dean Severson of the county planning commission says he hasn't seen a grass-roots efforts to regulate BYOBs in Lancaster County: "I doubt if it has come up very much."

Eileen Bauer of the Lancaster City Health Office says that until a new BYOB restaurant opened last month, it had been at least 10 years since anyone wanted to have one in the city.

Dominic Sabella opened La Casa Bella, 126 N. Prince Street, with a BYOB policy advertised on his menu, which soon attracted the attention of the city health office. BYOBs in the city are governed by a 1997 ordinance that regulates "bottle clubs," establishments where patrons pay a fee to enter and can bring their own alcohol, Bauer says.

The ordinance requires the clubs to pay an annual fee and close by 2 a.m. Sabella was told that he would either have to change his menu or apply for a BYOB permit and pay the $100 annual fee.

"I think he just thought (he) could do it. It may have just seemed natural to him," says Bauer. "I guess it is a nice little thing to have, but you have to do it the right way."

Sabella says he now plans to make change his BYOB policy and make menus that don't include the BYOB reference: "I'll make everybody happy," he says.

For her part, Bauer says she doesn't want see a surge in new BYOB restaurants in the city.

"We don't want to start something that every corner restaurant decides that is what they want to do," she says.


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