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Restaurant owners debate value of alcohol

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Some restaurant owners say BYOB — bring your own beverage — is both a blessing for business and a reminder of lost profit potential.

In some communities, that potential often ends up lost in political wrangling about whether to allow alcohol in any form. In more-accepting municipalities, getting a liquor license is a costly hurdle for business owners who want to gamble on big revenues.

William and Diane Crawford, owners of Crawdaddy's Restaurant in midtown Harrisburg, have gone the BYOB route and are in the process of getting a liquor license for their eatery at 1500 N. Sixth St.

They initially opened Crawdaddy's at 306 Reily St. in 2011. The restaurant is known for its live jazz music and menu of Cajun-style food, including crawfish and asparagus and chicken and shrimp gumbo with rice.

"We opened just a small restaurant but very quickly learned there's not as good of a revenue stream with just food alone," Diane Crawford said.

While BYOB brings people in the door, on weekends in particular, Crawford said, they are carrying wine bottles bought somewhere else.

"BYOB is good for the patron, the customer, they do get to save money," she said. "But for the restaurant, having food combined with alcohol sales provide a bigger revenue stream than food alone. Plus, you get to be more than one thing, as opposed to being a restaurant alone."

Crawdaddy's is following a well-worn path by starting out as a BYOB and then going for a liquor license, said Melissa Bova, government affairs representative for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.

"A lot of what helps a restaurant to survive is that extra cash flow," she said. "So BYOBs have an uphill battle to survive and continue to grow, especially in this economy."

The flip side is restaurant owners who have invested big bucks in a license often resent BYOBs who take business away, Bova added.

The cost of liquor licenses is governed by the marketplace, the state Liquor Control Board said. According to news reports, licenses sell for $200,000 or more in metropolitan areas of the state.

Dry politics

Then there is the politics.

The BYOB debate has raged periodically in Pennsylvania, largely at the municipal level. The LCB has very few restrictions on BYOB, but municipal laws are often a hurdle.

Newville, in Cumberland County, is a "dry" town that permits alcohol service only at the American Legion. In January, the owners of Saucy's Ristorante asked the borough council to allow BYOB in their South High Street Italian-style eatery.

Council agreed to take 60 days to allow police Chief Randy Finkey and Mayor William Toth to study the idea. Borough officials did not return calls for comment.

Whatever they decide, it will be too late for Saucy's Ristorante. Owners Audra and Fletcher Gardner confirmed last week on Facebook they have closed the business. Phone calls to the restaurant went unanswered.

Lemoyne is another dry West Shore town. Residents there have tried twice to permit alcohol via referendum, most recently with a 2009 measure that failed.

"At one time, there were a number of bars here in town and it was not a good experience," said Elmer Byrem Jr., mayor for 24 years before losing the 2013 election. "They really couldn't control it. Times are changing and I think the young people, they don't really remember that stuff. There's a faction that thinks alcohol would be good for the town."

Business impact

Byrem did not support the referendum and isn't sure Lemoyne needs alcohol to attract businesses as much as it needs improved water and sewer.

"There's one or two places that I think if we were to have free rein on alcohol, they would do well," he said. "As far as bringing in new business, it's going to take a lot more than that."

For Chris Heilig and his business partner, John Hoffman, a liquor license is a possibility in the distant future. At the moment, they are using BYOB as a strategy for success at their Shakedown Barbecue in East Hanover Township, Dauphin County.

After starting out as a roadside stand, they moved Shakedown to a sit-down location at 668 Firehouse Road in 2011. But the facility does not have the space to support the coolers and storage required to serve alcohol, Heilig said. Plus, the license is cost prohibitive at the moment.

Since barbecue and beer go together, Heilig and Hoffman went BYOB to attract customers. So far, it's working, Heilig said. In warmer weather, as many as half the customers bring their own alcohol to Shakedown.

"I know people like it because they can go half with a friend and buy a case (of beer) and save a lot as opposed to going to a bar or something," Heilig said.

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