Montgomery County has an alcohol problem, and it’s affecting small businesses and residents alike.
Since the Great Depression, the county has strictly controlled the sale of liquor, beer and wine within its borders. Eighty years later, the time has come to bring the county’s alcohol laws into the 21st century.
Many residents may not realize that Montgomery County is one of four jurisdictions in Maryland in which government workers control the flow of alcohol into stores and restaurants. This means that every time you purchase alcohol at a retail store or order a drink at a restaurant, you are choosing from a menu of options constricted by the bureaucratic red tape of the county’s Department of Liquor Control.
This outdated approach cries out for reform. The best strategy would be to open the distribution process to allow businesses to establish direct relationships with distributors. The county could still maintain its stores and liquor distribution for those restaurants and individuals who prefer the status quo, but others who want better inventory management and options would be free to purchase outside the county system. By taking this step, the county can lift a burden from many small businesses and encourage economic growth while increasing consumer options.
Like the rest of the country, the Washington region has experienced a surge of interest in craft beer, small-batch liquor and family-run wineries. But Montgomery County’s top-down system stymies residents and restaurateurs who want to try new products. We know a number of restaurateurs who have chosen to set up shop in other jurisdictions as a result. On the supply side, some producers and importers — especially the small, cutting-edge, boutique or craft makers — don’t sell to the Department of Liquor Control because of its cumbersome procedures and the diminished market for their products in the county.
One only needs to walk into a restaurant or bar in neighboring areas to see the difference these restrictions make for consumers. Often missing in Montgomery County are a full selection of micro-brews, small-batch liquors and high-end or locally made wines. Why? To get such products, restaurateurs must spend hours navigating the county’s complex ordering systems. Only the most pedestrian-quality products are kept in stock. Higher-quality products are considered “special order” and require long, sometimes-unpredictable waits that can wreak havoc with a restaurant’s inventory and make it difficult to plan. Ultimately, the consumer pays the price — either through lack of choice or higher costs.
Allowing restaurants and bars to establish direct relationships with distributors would increase economic options for our business community. It would also incentivize the Department of Liquor Control to update its ordering and inventory systems to remain competitive and profitable.
One argument for maintaining the status quo is money. The department is projected to contribute $20.7 million in profit to the county’s $4.8 billion fiscal 2014 budget, and there are concerns that cutting the county out of a portion of these transactions would slow this revenue stream. But this overlooks the economic energy that would be freed by easing control, which would attract new business and expand the county’s tax base, and a fee structure could be imposed to recoup some of the lost revenue.
Montgomery County and Maryland have already recognized the need to change liquor laws to adapt to the public’s changing tastes and an evolving hospitality industry. In 2011, lawmakers in Annapolis passed legislation allowing residents to receive out-of-state wine shipments. The year before, Montgomery opened the door to Sunday liquor sales by erasing a decades-old “blue law” forbidding such transactions. Now, with the recent recommendations of the Montgomery County Nighttime Economy Task Force, the county is finally poised to examine the overriding issue of liquor control.
Government programs come in lots of shapes and sizes. The best ones are clear and transparent and enrich the lives of the citizens by providing needed public services. But sometimes they come in a form that increases our cost of living, restricts choice, discourages business and frustrates consumers. Montgomery County’s monopoly on alcohol distribution operates as a hidden tax on businesses and residents that hurts our quality of life and inhibits our growth.
Evan Glass, a Democratic candidate for the Montgomery County Council in the 5th District, served on the Montgomery County Nighttime Economy Task Force. Jackie Greenbaum is owner of Jackie’s Restaurant and the Quarry House Tavern, both in Silver Spring.