In a region where many communities rigidly enforced strict minimum 100-seat capacity thresholds and prohibited liquor license holders from serving any patron unless they ordered a meal, it was once rare to stumble across an unlicensed eatery where customers routinely imbibed their own booze.
Indeed, with neighboring Melrose banning alcohol sales entirely in the community until 2009 and Woburn prohibiting eatery patrons from standing upright while holding an adult beverage, the notion that Stoneham restauranteurs would increasingly turn to bring-your-own-beer and wine (BYOB) policies as a way to generate more customer traffic would have seemed unthinkable not too long ago.
For a state that outlawed Sunday liquor store sales until 2014, times have certainly changed. And Stoneham's Select Board, aware that a more alcohol-tolerant public is increasingly embracing the BYOB culture, believes it needs to step in and regulate the practice before it gets out of hand.
Earlier this month, Select Board Chair Shelly MacNeill unveiled draft regulations that would require all Stoneham merchants to obtain a special license before allowing patrons to bring alcohol into their establishments.
According to MacNeill, the new license category would clearly delineate merchants' responsibilities for ensuring patrons are not imbibing too much alcohol, prohibit the consumption of hard liquor, and stipulate that businesses — rather than the town — are liable for any BYOB-related incident.
Currently, the Stoneham Select Board acts as the town's Liquor License Authority, and local regulations are completely silent to the issue. In the past, town officials turned the proverbial blind-eye to the handful of businesses that allowed guests to consume their own alcohol, so long as merchants self-policed their guests and made sure everyone acted responsibly.
However, with the BYOB trend gaining steam in recent years, businesses outside of the food industry have begun flirting with the practice. And with nail salons, beauty parlors, and even bowling alleys and painting studios allowing guests to drink their own alcohol, government officials in Stoneham and surrounding municipalities have begun to take notice.
"Right now, they can do this seven days a week, and we have no input. Who's watching what's going on? I'm looking at this as protecting business owners as much as the town," MacNeill argued during a meeting in Stoneham Town Hall earlier this month.
BYOB, also commonly referred to as a brown bag policy, was once infrequently practiced by 'mom and pop" restaurants that allowed guests to procure and consume their own alcohol while eating a meal.
Decades ago, when communities like Stoneham and Woburn set high seating capacity thresholds for liquor licenses, BYOB establishments were generally smaller eateries that were either unable to meet those standards or unable to justify the annual expense of obtaining proper permits.
Yet, with restaurant owners increasingly reliant upon liquor sales to bolster already-slim profit margins, cities and towns have tried to lend a helping hand by loosening some licensing requirements and appealing to the state Legislature for a greater number and variety of on-premise consumption licenses to give to merchants.
For example, Stoneham has recently reduced its minimum seating capacity for liquor licenses to 35 seats, while the town and city officials in neighboring Woburn have also begun advertising the ability of wine-and-beer only permits.
Technically, unless cities and towns impose an outright ban, there is no state law that prevents business owners from allowing of-age adults to consume beer, wine, or liquor they procured on their own.
However, state law explicitly prohibits existing liquor license holders from allowing guests to bring in their own alcohol.
Many opponents of BYOB practices have argued the enactment of special brown bag regulations is unfair to liquor license holders, who are dishing out thousands of dollars for the permits and also shouldering the financial burden of training staff about how to comply with the state's service rules. Licensed businesses are also required to carry extra liability insurance coverage.
In Melrose, which was a "dry" community until a decade ago, city officials in 2015 instituted a complete ban on BYOB practices.
However, Stoneham's neighbors in Woburn, where alcohol license-holders pay $2,500 in annual permitting fees, ultimately decided to allow BYOB establishments.
Under the approval process, Woburn's License Commission has created new carry-in alcohol regulations that require at least one restaurant employee to be alcohol-service certified and prohibit license holders from charging customers a corking fee or any other charge.
Business employees are also prohibited from pouring or touching alcoholic beverages brought in by customers, while license holders must serve food to guests.
Though Stoneham officials generally support the idea of instituting similar BYOB regulations, several Select Board members have expressed concern about the new standards.
According to Select Board member George Seibold, though he is concerned about Stoneham leaving unaddressed the issue of BYOB policies, he is equally wary of creating a system whereby every merchant in town can let customers consume alcohol.
Believing the town could be viewed as legitimizing the practice by collecting money and issuing licenses, Seibold questioned whether Stoneham would then become liable for any alcohol-related incident that happens at those establishments.
Select Board member Caroline Colarusso also sought input from Stoneham Police Chief James McIntyre as to the town's ability to enforce the new BYOB regulations. Along similar lines, Select Board member Raymie Parker contends that license holders should be responsible for having employees trained on how to spot customers who have over-indulged.
"Once we put this in, does that mean Stoneham takes over that umbrella of liability?" Seibold asked during the recent Town Hall debate. "I'm playing devil's advocate here, because if it's coming from us, I want to make sure [we're covered legally]. We have to make sure we get this right."