Alcohol for Parm, and the recipe for gaining the approval of a suspicious community board

To walk into the restaurant Parm, on Mulberry Street just south of Prince, is to be transported to one of those mythic 1950s neighborhood soda shops where everyone knows your name. The pressed tin ceiling and retro-chic wallpaper are part of it, but the star here is the seemingly endless bar, a plank that runs from one end of the long, narrow space to the other.

When the space opens to the public this week, the classic diner stools will be filled with people ordering the sandwich for which the space is named, and also a drink.

“We’re going to have some amazing cocktails,” Jeff Zalaznick told me during a recent tour of the unfinished space. Zalaznick, with partners and co-owners Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, is opening Parm in the storefront right next to their already hugely successful restaurant Torrisi Italian Specialties.

Billed on the food blogs as a “sandwich shop,” it’s the cocktails that will transform the place from a lunch counter to a real hot spot. Here as everywhere in New York, liquor service is essential to the business model, and it collapses if you don’t get a liquor license.

And getting a liquor license means getting a recommendation from the liquor-license committee of the local community board. The process is grueling and often even raucous, and often pits restaurant operators against neighbors long before their first meal is served. But it’s a process that some restaurateurs have become experts at.

LAURA MANIEC WAS NOT AN EXPERT. SHE SPENT 10 YEARS as wine director for BR Guest restaurants, the company that counts Blue Water Grill, Blue Fin, and Ruby Foo among the dozens of restaurants it operates in New York, Florida and Las Vegas. She is opening up a place she can call her own, a wine bar called Corkbuzz, on East 13th Street just east of fifth Avenue. Earlier this year, she was making her case to the local community board for a liquor license. The community boards make recommendations to the State Liquor Authority for which restaurants and bars should be given licenses.

“Laura, who is standing here next to me, is one of 18 female master sommeliers in the world,” her lawyer David Bernstein was telling members of Manhattan Community Board 2’s liquor-license committee.

Bernstein, a compact man with graying hair and a booming voice, is a lawyer who specializes in helping bar and restaurant operators navigate the community-board liquor-license application process. He was presenting the first of several cases that evening.

Maniec explained to them that Corkbuzz would be “a place where wine can be celebrated and enjoyed.”

“If you’re a wine bar, then why do you need a liquor license?” asked a member of the audience, which filled nearly 200 folding chairs on the basketball court of St. Patrick’s Youth Center in on Mulberry Street. The question was greeted with applause.

“That’s a great question, and one that I’ve thought really long and hard about,” Maniec said in response. “I’m not going to pretend that it’s any big secret that beverage and spirits have a higher markup. I’m signing a 12-year lease and I’m looking to be here a long time and I want to make it a viable business and that’s one way to do it.”

That answer didn’t settle things. there was also confusion about what exactly a “private dining room” was going to turn out to be. And several attendees wanted to be sure that she wasn’t using any outside promoters—community boards hate outside promoters—to sponsor parties at the venue.

Complicating Maniec’s application is the fact that she was opening Corkbuzz in an address that hadn’t previously had a liquor license. Licenses can be passed down to new owners of businesses operating out of the same address.

“Why choose a spot that never had a license?” an audience-member asked. “What other spaces did you look at? can you name them?”

After other comments, about alcoholism and neighborhood crime, came Davide Gentile, head of the 13th Street Block Association.

“People who operate businesses in our neighborhood, egregiously, don’t live anywhere similar,” Gentile said. “Forget the neighborhood. in terms of mixed use and zoning, they don’t understand anything about this. They don’t understand living on top of other people. They live in places with driveways and lawns. it requires a certain sensibility, and if you don’t have that sensibility: go fish.”

The audience erupted in applause.

FORMED IN 1975, BUT ESTABLISHED AS WE KNOW THEM today by the 1989 charter revision, community boards are made up of members appointed by the borough president and members of the City Council. They were created to give the community a means of voicing objections to projects they deemed harmful and to support ones they liked, such as farmers markets or children’s playground renovations.

Of all the various board committees, the SLA committee, which makes recommendation to the New York State Liquor Authority about the granting of licenses to bars and restuarants, is by far the most time-consuming. Sometimes it meets twice a month, in addition to a monthly meeting of the full board, just to fit in all the month’s applicants. The meetings often run past one in the morning.

Working on a volunteer basis, the members tend to be passionate men and women dedicating significant amounts of time to protect their perceived interests as community residents. They take their role seriously, and ask lots of questions of applicants.

Community boards are routinely described as “notoriously nitpicky,” “kangaroo courts” and “communist boards.” Community Board 2, whose purview includes Little Italy, Noho, Soho, the West Village, the Lower East Side and Chinatown, has a reputation for being particularly inhospitable.

The resulting gantlet for would-be restaurateurs is a daunting one, and the meetings at Community Board 2 are, routinely, hostile in tone.

From the community-board standpoint, though, the approval-routine ordeal is not a function of how much power they have, but rather of how much they don’t have.

“It used to be that if there were any part of the application that we weren’t OK with, that we had no choice but to deny the application outright,” said Richard Stewart, co-chair of the SLA Committee of Community Board 2.

He said that as a result, the SLA, which usually defers to the community boards, began to presume that a lot of the denials were unreasonable, and in turn approved licenses for bars and restaurants that duly took advantage of them by staying open late and making noise—just like the boards were afraid they would.

Simultaneously, operators started misrepresenting their plans to the board in pursuit of coveted license recommendations, submitting completely different applications to the board and the SLA, or applying to both the board and SLA on behalf of one entity and then handing it off to another.

“A lot of people try to end-run around the board,” said Stewart.

Dennis Rosen, chairman of the state liquor authority, had his own laundry list of shady operator tactics.

“For example, an applicant in front of the community board said he’s going to open up a bookstore and people can sit around drinking wine,” he said. “It sounds very civilized and very sedate. The board sends a recommendation saying, ‘This sounds terrific,’ the SLA approves it and four months later this guy changes his name from Rapture Café & Books to Superdive.”

Run like a frat house, the now-shuttered Superdive became famous (or infamous) for the audacity and sheer recklessness with which it encouraged people to drink. Keg stands were not only sanctioned, but encouraged.

Over the course of its existence it not only attracted a young and drinksy element into the neighborhood but inspired imitator-businesses, anchoring a nightlife scene that residents decidedly didn’t want.

“One of the things that really surprised me and really saddened me when I took this job a year and a half ago was the level of antagonism between the industry on the one hand and the community boards on the other,” said Rosen. “The community boards are very, very skeptical of the applicants that come before them and they make no effort to hide that skepticism and in some respects that skepticism is well-founded.”

And just as the board has been burned by applicants, the applicants aren’t happy with the process either.

“They’ll say to me, ‘Last time they kept us until 2 a.m. and they hollered at us and we didn’t feel there were people there with open minds,’” Rosen said. “I don’t think that’s an accurate description generally for how the boards operate, but I think there are times when that feeling is conveyed by certain members of the board to certain members of the industry.”

The boards do nothing to dispel the perception that they are reflexively hostile toward the opening of new establishments when they try to implement moratoriums on all new liquor licenses, as a number of them in other bar-heavy communities have done.

“They’ll say, ‘We don’t care who it is applying or what the method of operation is, but we’re going to oppose it because we think there are too many licensees,’ but the concept of a moratorium, I have told the community boards, I don’t accept,” he said. “There are legal due-process issues if a regulator were to come out and say we’re declaring a moratorium without looking at the specifics of each individual case.”

Rosen says he has attempted to find ways to reduce the levels of animosity between boards and applicants.

“One of the most important things aiding the process right now is the use of resolutions, or stipulations,” said Rosen. “Whether they like it or not or, whether they’re apprehensive about it, I’ve been pushing people to talk more and encouraging them to use stipulations and sometimes it works very nicely.”

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Alcohol for Parm, and the recipe for gaining the approval of a suspicious community board


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