A group of Ocean City restaurant owners and operators recently started a petition drive that, if successful, would result in residents voting on changing local laws to permit patrons to ‘bring your own bottle' when dining in the city. They say a BYOB policy could boost business.
Other local merchants - including some restaurant owners - as well as city officials and residents fear BYOB would tarnish the island's wholesome image.
The Ocean City Restaurant Association is pushing for 747 signatures by Sept. 6. Once the signatures are verified, the question would go to local voters in November.
We spoke recently with local restaurateur Bill McGinnity and real estate agent Ken Cooper to look at both sides of the issue.
Cooper, 54, opposes BYOB. He was born and raised in Ocean City, where he still lives and works. When not renting and selling residential properties, Cooper helps organize the annual First Night event and serves on the Ocean City Historic Museum board and local historical and environmental commissions.
McGinnity, 46, is in favor of BYOB. He moved to the island as a teenager and lived here until after college. After working as a chef all over the country, he returned to the area nearly two decades ago. He now lives in Linwood and runs caterer Nobil Foodservices and Cousins Restaurant, 104 Asbury Ave.
Q: If the BYOB referendum gets on the ballot and is successful, what do you anticipate the effect of that being on the Ocean City brand?
Cooper: I think it would change the character, the nature of the town. It would change the atmosphere of the town. Ocean City is well known for being a dry town. If you take that away, it certainly takes way from what has taken 133, 134 years now to create.
Even if it gets to a referendum, I don't see it passing. For me, (it) is really about respect for our founders ... the Lake Brothers. They chose Ocean City because they could acquire the entire island ... with the purpose of creating a Christian resort.
And one of those provisions of the Christian resort was there would be no alcoholic sales on the island. So they went to great lengths. Every deed in Ocean City -- every deed -- says about no alcohol on the property and no drinking in public, or anything like that. So I think over the years it certainly has created America's Greatest Family resort. To say alcohol doesn't go on and drinking doesn't go on here would be wrong. But it goes on in the privacy of your home. It's not on the beach, it's not in bars, we don't have BYOB. You talk about BYOB -- it's the first step in moving on to (selling) alcohol.
McGinnity: He is correct about the deeds with the sale of the alcohol. (The) BYOB (proposal) does not mention, nor does it have anything to do with the sale of alcohol. With the sale of alcohol, which I would never want to see in Ocean City, you will no longer be a dry town. With BYOB, you are a dry town.
I think as an adult, I'm mature and responsible enough to take a bottle of wine out with my wife and my four children, have a glass or two of wine with my meal and still be responsible for my children. We don't ever want to sell it, and we want to protect what Ocean City is.
(BYOB) is going to increase the level of restaurants. Because you're not going to go out and eat a cheesesteak with a nice bottle of wine. I think you're going to have to compete. (Someone) made a comment to me, "What if two more Italian restaurants open up in town?" And I'm like, "I think that's great. Because if two more Italian restaurants open up in Ocean City, that's more people to support those businesses." And if it means I have to step up my game at Cousins, bring it. I'm all about the competition.
Cooper: I don't agree with that. How can you say that because I'm allowed to bring a bottle of wine to dinner with me it's going to increase seasonal rentals?
As a real estate agent, I can tell you there's nobody asking me on the phone whether they can bring a bottle of wine to a restaurant here in town. There's nobody thinking about coming in September or October because they can drink here in town.
I don't agree with a couple of things. First of all, you can't say you're only going to allow downtown restaurants to have BYOB. Eventually it will spread. It will have to come up to the Boardwalk. There will be people bringing bottles here, there and everywhere, or a six pack. BYOB can be beer, too, it's not necessarily wine; it can be whatever you want. It's BYOB: bring your own bottle. It doesn't necessarily mean wine; it doesn't mean beer or alcohol.
I think it's a grave mistake to assume it's going to be isolated to a few restaurants. How are they going to handle that? I don't think it's the answer to the restaurant situation here in Ocean City.
Anybody that's had a restaurant in Ocean City certainly knew upon arrival here that there's no alcohol being served here in town. You have to make up your business plan knowing there's no alcohol. You're never going to have a place like The Crab Trap ... here in Ocean City. We've seen all of our restaurants be sold off. Restaurants that we all grew up with, that we all loved here ... have all sold out, and they've all become condominium developments. That's because of the value of real estate.
I understand that the restaurant industry is trying to improve themselves and make themselves better. Ocean City, it is not known for its world-class restaurants, and maybe some of that has to do with alcohol. I think it has (more) to do with economics.
You're (also) going to need more police if you're going to have more people drinking. You know, we have drunk drivers here in town, but the fact of the matter is if people are going to be allowed to drink at all these different restaurants, you're going to have to deal with more drunk driving. ... More police will be needed.
Q: Bill, even if voters approve BYOB, some residents will still oppose it. So what would your ideas be for addressing those concerns and making people comfortable with it and also in terms of practicalities, like more police?
McGinnity: I don't think we're going to need police. It's not going to be people drinking a lot more. It's not going to be a bunch of college kids on the corner doing shots. It's going to be people who are going out to dinner. There's probably at least $100,000 that drives over that bridge every Friday and Saturday night to get a meal because they can't have a glass of wine or a beer with their meal.
If we can keep some of the revenue dollars on the island, it benefits everybody.
As an owner, as a proprietor, I can post that I'll allow BYOB or I can post that during the months of July and August, I don't want BYOB. We make our money on food. I don't want someone coming in there for three hours occupying a table. We want you to enjoy your glass of wine or beer with your meal and move forward and go to your next event in Ocean City. We're trying to keep revenue dollars, and not just for the restaurants. It benefits everybody. Look what it has done for Collingswood, and they don't even have a beach. They're still a dry town. It completely brought back and revitalized their downtown shopping district. They have probably five amazing BYOBs with very successful stores around (them) where before all those stores were abandoned buildings. They're no longer abandoned buildings; they're successful businesses. Now back to Ken, what's worth more, an abandoned building or a building that has a thriving business in it? The thriving business. So not just the restaurants, the stores selling shirts, clothes -- all those buildings that were empty now have thriving businesses which now increase the value of that real estate.
Cooper: It's not realistic to think allowing someone to bring a bottle of wine or beer to dinner is going to create all that.
Q: Ken, if you believe there's a need to expand, do you have any ideas -- or have you heard any specific ideas -- for expanding Ocean City's appeal both in terms of the demographic it's drawing and also in terms of the length of the season?
Cooper: Well, I think first of all, we're doing a great job of doing that. How crowded do you want the town? I know businesses want more, more, more and I make my living from that more, more, more. I mean, I do rentals, I do sales. And the more people that come, it's better for me. No doubt about that.
You should always look into things that are going to promote and make the town better, that are going to bring more people here, that are going to increase tourism. I just don't think alcohol is one of those things. We've put too much into making it a dry town to be revisiting this thing again. And listen, I have no problem, put it out to the people. Let the people decide. I think it's the fair way to do it in government, in a democracy. So, I don't have suggestions for you on how to increase the season. Personally, I'm doing fine, so I mean, I don't know how to say that. I don't know how to respond to that question.
McGinnity: I'm looking at the locals, too. Look at the time they can actually now spend dollars here in Ocean City. The people who live here year-round have flat-out said, "I'm not eating at your restaurant. You have great food, but I enjoy a glass of wine with my meal."
I mean the shoulder season -- the true season is getting shorter and shorter every year. And I know this because I have kids in high school. Because if your kid plays a fall sport, that camp starts the second week in August, and that family is now off the island. So the season gets shorter and shorter. So to pay a 12-month mortgage, I really have seven or eight months to make my money. If we can continue on in a strong -- 'cause the weather down here in September, October, is amazing, my two favorite months. The beach is incredible, the water is warm.
So why wouldn't we want to keep the locals happy? Why wouldn't we want to keep the people that live, that pay to live in Ocean City, spending revenue dollars in Ocean City? Why force them to go over the bridge to drink with their meal when we can accommodate them on the island in a safe manner?
Q: Why do you feel there's resistance?
McGinnity: I think a lot of people who are resisting are unclear as to what BYOB is.
You cannot sell it, you cannot have vodka, you cannot have hard liquor; it's only wine and beer. And I think it will enhance what the restaurants have to offer. And I think the benefit to the Boardwalk, is if -- I'll use myself (as an example). If me and my wife can go out to dinner in town, and we're renting here for a week, and we can take a bottle of wine, and we can have dinner, and we're done by 8 o'clock, we're on the Boardwalk. With my three boys, if we're still on the Boardwalk at 9 o'clock, they're hungry again. So I'm feeding pizza, ice cream, popcorn, they're eating again. So now the second meal of the night is on the Boardwalk somewhere, so they are benefiting from it. Where if I'm going over the bridge to get a meal to have a beer or wine with my dinner, by the time I get back over the bridge, it's 9 or 9:30, and I'm probably not going to pay to go park my car at 9:30 at night for an hour. The kids are going to be in meltdown mode. So instead of me going to the Boardwalk once or twice, I can now hit the Boardwalk three or four times during my stay in Ocean City.
Cooper: That's a very selfish reason, though. That's only for your own enjoyment. I think having alcohol in Ocean City and having BYOB is benefiting very few people -- the restaurant people -- and nobody else. It's only going to benefit you and your bottom line. How is it, let me ask you, how is having BYOB in Ocean City going to benefit me, Ken Cooper?
McGinnity: Real estate values are going to go up.
Cooper: Real estate values are up in Ocean City. I don't know how much you know about real estate values. It's a lot more expensive to live in Ocean City than it is to live in Sea Isle City, Wildwood, Ventnor or Margate.
And that's because of this niche we've created about a family resort, alcohol-free, and it is part of it. Why would you ruin that for the benefit of a few people? So that you can relax and not go to Somers Point, and you can have your wine here? Why destroy the uniqueness of this resort for the benefit of so few?
It's not going to increase real estate values. It's going to do what it did to Wildwood and Sea Isle City, which have lower real estate values.
McGinnity: They all have bars. BYOB has nothing to do with a bar.
Cooper: You say you don't want a bar, but if you start alcohol ... you say it doesn't work that way. But you originally told us you didn't want alcohol on the Boardwalk. Now alcohol businesses are on the Boardwalk, now you have to walk in the back door. There's too many loopholes. ... I just think -- I just, I keep going back to my thing, it's a bad decision.
Contact Emily Previti: 609-272-7221 EPreviti@pressofac.com