OCEAN CITY — Some restaurants are quietly campaigning to allow their customers to bring wine or spirits to dinner in this dry town founded by Methodist ministers.
Bring Your Own Bottle, known as BYOB, is a tradition observed in southern New Jersey restaurants that do not have licenses to sell or serve their own alcohol. Ocean City has banned the sale of “spirituous, malt, intoxicating or vinous liquors” on the island through deed restrictions since its founding in 1884 and by ordinance since 1909.
Some island restaurant owners are trying to win over public support for BYOB as a way of boosting sagging business during tough economic times and reinvigorating the city’s nightlife. But they concede that alcohol is a touchy issue on an island that outlaws gambling and boasts deed restrictions against dance halls.
“We’re trying to create an experience, not cause a dilemma for local police,” said Bill McGinnity, owner of Cousin’s Restaurant on Asbury Avenue.
They created a Facebook page in May that has attracted more than 300 supporters. The owners want to make clear that they do not want to change the city’s status as a dry town or in any way jeopardize Ocean City’s reputation as America’s Greatest Family Resort.
“I don’t want liquor licenses in Ocean City,” said Kevin Scull, owner of Scully’s Asbury Cafe on Asbury Avenue. “It’s a very sensitive issue. I don’t want to alienate my customers because of it.”
Alcohol has always been the third rail of Ocean City politics. The city’s alcohol ban survived Atlantic City’s bootlegging influence during the Nucky Johnson era, the repeal of Prohibition and the societal upheavals of the 1960s.
Even as warehouse-sized liquor stores cropped up just off the island and the city’s annual Night in Venice boat parade developed a reputation as a floating boozefest, the city maintained its resolve over alcohol.
“It’s one of those things that defines Ocean City. It’s a dry town,” said Angelo DiBartolo, owner of the Beach Grill at Second Street and the beach. “I get a laugh out of out-of-towners who ask where they can buy a beer. They’re in the wrong town.”
DiBartolo said he is not in favor of BYOB even if it might help his restaurant, which serves only breakfast and lunch.
“I don’t waste my time opening for dinner. It’s not worth it,” he said. “BYOB would change the complexion of my business. I could be like the popular little restaurant on the ocean.”
Mayor Jay Gillian this week said he will never sanction BYOB.
“As long as I’m mayor, I’m absolutely against it,” he said. “Everyone thinks there is a magic pill that will help businesses.”
Gillian, whose family owns amusement parks on the Boardwalk, said permitting alcohol could undercut the city’s efforts to promote itself as a safe, family-friendly destination.
“It’s all about image,” he said. “Our image is that of a family town. To change it for the few could be damaging to the whole. I don’t think people understand the ramifications.”
Gillian said alcohol sales have not kept numerous restaurants in southern New Jersey from going out of business in the recession.
“What do the majority of people want? That’s the thing that drives me crazy. People like to come to Ocean City because they like the way it is. And they get here, and they want to change it for their own selfish reasons,” Gillian said. “We’ve done pretty well without it. It would be a big mistake to bring it in. It’s short-sighted.”
Gillian said the solution is for the restaurants to focus on their food and service.
“My response is, sell great food. They line up for Mack and Manco’s pizza. They line up for Johnson’s Popcorn,” he said.
The restaurant owners said allowing customers to bring a bottle of wine, a six-pack of beer or a flagon of their favorite spirits to dinner would pose no conflict with the city’s many child-friendly activities. Instead, it would complement the city’s downtown, especially in the off-season when the island’s business grows lethargic.
“In Collingswood, BYOB revitalized their shopping district,” McGinnity said. “If we had it here, it would bring more competition to Ocean City.”
Collingswood, with a population of 13,800 in Camden County is slightly smaller than Ocean City. Police Chief Richard Sarlo agreed that BYOB improved local business. And he said his department has had no problems with law and order since Collingswood began allowing BYOB at its restaurants several years ago.
“We’ve had very good success with it,” he said. “I think people like to bring their wine with them to dinner. Restaurants have adhered to regulations, and they’ve done a very good job.”
Collingswood remains a dry town. Sarlo said he could not remember a single incident involving a drunken patron since the city changed its rules.
“It’s a different type of crowd — a dinner crowd,” he said. “You’re not talking about young kids hanging on the corner drinking beer. It’s groups of friends who bring a wine bottle with them. Everything is fine. We haven’t had any problems with it.”
And McGinnity said even Ocean Grove allows BYOB. The Neptune Township resort, like Ocean City, was founded by strict Methodist ministers.
McGinnity said Ocean City’s blue laws banning Sunday sales reached absurdity before their public repeal in 1986. Once, his uncle tried to buy eggs at a store on the island but the clerk said she was not permitted to sell foods that had to be cooked or prepared.
“She asked him, ‘Are you going to eat them raw?’” he said.
McGinnity said his clever uncle replied, “Would you eat them any other way?”
The restaurant owners said they do not want to lose customers over the issue. But they think they can make a reasonable argument in favor of allowing BYOB while preserving the island’s better attributes.
“We don’t know it’s going to work. But we need to try something,” Scull said.
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