Liquor, Management

How to Get a Liquor License: Common Pitfalls to Avoid

By Reggie Woo


Reggie Woo

September 15, 2016

Posted in Restaurant Management, Industry & Culture

A lack of understanding in acquiring a liquor license can lead to costly mistakes. Here are some common blunders to avoid.

For most restaurants and bars, liquor licences can make or break your bottom line. BevSpot recently had the chance to sit down with Karen Simao, a partner at McDermott, Quilty & Miller, LLP specializing in licensing for 15 years and a person who grew up in the hospitality industry. The Boston-based firm concentrates in handling the liquor licensing process for any venue including restaurants, bars, hotels, and package stores in the state.

As the second of an exclusive three-part blog series on the legal process of liquor licensing, we discuss the most common pitfalls Karen sees—with both brand new and veteran restaurateurs alike—and how to avoid them.

If It’s Too Good to Be True, It Probably Is

One of the common mistakes Karen sees with clients is an age-old lesson. She’ll see people who take words at face value and believe too earnestly in the verbal promises made by others. “I’ve had people come in, and everyone under the sun is telling them: ‘Don’t worry about zoning, and we’ll get you a license in a couple of weeks or a couple of months.’” What ends up happening in most of these cases is the long and costly delay of the projects.

An example case brought up by Karen was a client who came in recently with a similar scenario. Their landlord roped them into a lease with the promise of six months’ worth of free rent. This would have been a great deal if they had have been able to open and start operating within those six months. However, now, because of promises that were made and no one was held accountable for, their establishment has been delayed for over a year.

Love Thy Neighbor

Something that Karen noticed being regularly overlooked in the process of liquor licensing is the community outreach. A lot of her clients run under broad assumptions of their neighborhood, with thoughts such as “Well, they [the local residents] live in the city. They should expect noise, or they should expect traffic.” While this may be true in our minds, it shouldn’t lead your efforts away from grafting roots in the community.

Pushback can really hamper your chances of success, so prospective restaurant owners need to start off on the right foot and build good relationships within the neighborhood. That being said, like the guests walking through your future doors, you can’t expect your prospective business to win everyone over. Reducing friction within the community can make the licensing process easier, as well as build a solid base of possible regulars in the future.

You Get What You Pay For

Another typical mistake is trying to short-pay the licensing process. Karen has seen many clients come in who had previously paid a non-specialist or general practitioner at a cheaper rate to handle the license application. Mistakes in the application process are often what happen in those cases, whether they be not submitting the right organizational structure or never even filing the application. Trying to work through the license application on a short budget will usually backfire and end up costing you more to fix in the end.

What needs to be understood is that a liquor license is an important investment that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Karen compared the process to going to see a doctor—if you have a heart problem, you shouldn’t be going to a pediatrist to treat it. Liquor licensing is a very specialized legal area, and you need to make sure to do the due diligence when finding the right legal representation to help you through the process.

If you are looking for legal counsel in acquiring a liquor license in Massachusetts, or have more questions about the process, feel free to contact McDermott, Quilty & Miller, LLP at (617) 946-4600 or Karen directly at And look forward to future parts of this series on the BevSpot blog—in our finale, we’ll cover the red flags you should look for in your legal representation and steps you can take to make the application process as smooth as possible.

For more bar management advice, subscribe to the blog below. And feel free to leave your own personal advice/experiences on avoiding pitfalls in liquor licensing in the comment section.

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