HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP - Bahri Yilmaz knows that some people, if given the choice, would much rather have wine with their dinner.
It's a preference that often leads people to walk out of his Hopewell Township restaurant when they are told the place cannot serve liquor. And while he said it pains him - and his business - to see patrons go, Yilmaz admitted it was understandable.
"When I go out with my wife, I like to have a cold beer with my steak," Yilmaz said Wednesday at his Route 49 restaurant, the Green Olive. "The consumer has changed. Today, 85 percent of people like to have a glass of wine with their meal."
But it is a change that has been slow in coming to several towns and cities in southern New Jersey - a region still marked by Prohibition-era bans on the sale of alcohol.
Perhaps the most famous of the area's dry towns is Ocean City, Cape May County, a former Methodist summer camp that has managed to keep its abstinence despite its emergence as a bustling tourist destination.
Others, such as the Cumberland County township of Hopewell, have been dry for decades, but not necessarily for a religious reason.
Hopewell Township Mayor Bruce Hankins said Wednes-day that it probably was due more to the township's sleepy character as a farming community than to any kind of moral principle.
"It just was always dry and I don't think anybody ever wanted it," he said. "The package goods stores were always in Bridgeton. I don't think the township residents would be in favor of a bar or package goods store."
When Yilmaz opened the restaurant in 2005, he filed a petition to bring the issue of liquor sales to the voters in a referendum. It was defeated by the slim margin of about 15 votes, he said.
Other towns have had success with such referendums. The city of Linwood in Atlantic County sold its first liquor license for $500,000 in 2003 after residents voted overwhelmingly to allow drinks to be served.
Budgetary concerns also prompted West Cape May officials to consider ending its dry status in 2007, and voters approved the idea. That municipality, however, has yet to adopt an ordinance that would allow two liquor licenses.
Dennis Township, also in Cape May County, repealed its dry status in 2001. Its first distribution liquor license, which went up for bid during a closed-envelope auction, sold for $1.1 million.
More than 30 dry towns remain in New Jersey.
Municipalities that prohibited the sale of liquor by referendum must resort to the same mechanism if they seek to undo their bans. If denied, applicants must wait five years before trying again. If approved, the population of the community determines the number of available liquor licenses.
According to Title 33, the state law that governs the sale of liquor, one consumption license can be issued per 3,000 people. Distribution licenses are doled out per 7,500 people.
Towns with fewer than 1,000 residents, however, are granted one consumption license and one distribution license.
Yilmaz said he plans to take another shot at a referendum when he becomes eligible to do so next year.
He said he was hopeful the outcome will be different now that local residents are familiar with his business. As it is now, Yilmaz said, wait staff at the restaurant uncork 40 to 50 bottles of wine per night during the weekend.
Yilmaz's confidence also has been boosted, he added, by the surveys customers fill out asking whether they would support the granting of a liquor license.
"I don't think they're against it," he said.
As far as township government was concerned, Hankins said he didn't think anyone was solidly against it.
"It's a question for the voters," Hankins said. "My gut feeling is that the Green Olive runs a good operation and has invested a lot of money in the township. I don't think the people would object to it now that they have a track record."
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