Dear UpperWest friends & supporters:
To all of our fantastic friends and supporters, we want to provide you with a long awaited update on the status of UpperWest, a small locally owned restaurant that we are working on opening in the Harvard Square area of Cambridge, MA. We also want to thank you so much for the incredible outpouring of support that we received during our efforts to get food and liquor licenses at 1001 Mass. Ave.
As you know, the concept of UpperWest is a European style restaurant with a coffee bar theme during the daytime, and a wine bar theme in the evenings. The menu highlights artisanal charcuterie and cheese, in addition to small plates of hand made pastas, braised meats, and much more. We have a strong community focus, with the hope of offering the neighborhood lots of fun food and drink events, in addition to social and networking opportunities.
After over a year of hard work getting into the 1001 Mass. Ave. location, we ran into a temporary obstacle at our hearings before the Cambridge License Commission and did not receive our licenses to open at that time. Although it has been a struggle, we want you to know that we are still here, still working hard towards our goal of opening, and making progress.
We recognize that we could try to recoup the funds lost and simply pick a different location in Cambridge, and likely get a liquor license since we are well qualified. However, we feel like we have an obligation to protect other businesses from this type of unfair and biased approach to the application of laws by the License Commission. If we ignore this problem, then it will perpetuate it for others, which we find to be unacceptable.
For those of you who don't know the story of what happened at our hearings, here's a recap:
Our food and liquor license applications for the location at 1001 Mass. Ave. were met with opposition from a neighboring business owner, who appeared to bring with him a number of others to speak against us, including two attorneys. Our opponent was Steven Kapsalis, the owner of the basement bar The Cellar and the liquor store Cellar Wine & Spirits at 991 Mass. Ave., next door to our proposed location. Mr. Kapsalis, and friends, provided the License Commission with lots of irrelevant, incorrect, and disparaging information. Mr. Kapsalis went so far as to accuse us of "deceptive practices", alleging that we were intentionally trying to circumvent the law by trying to open a "bar" rather than a "restaurant".
In fact, we believe that our application was strong, and our restaurant concept was solid. That didn't seem to matter to the License Commission, who gave us just as many difficulties as Mr. Kapsalis through numerous procedural problems, incorrect information and even more irrelevant points. Many of the Commission's arguments were quite strange, as noted in an article by Marc Levy in Cambridge Day (Cambridge Lost Wine Bar Before It Opened and Entrepreneurs Should Be Asking Why, October 6, 2014). Mr. Levy found the License Commission's behavior so strange, in fact, that he named it on the top of his list of the Worst of Cambridge of 2014.
The most curious aspect of the whole proceeding was the existence of a Petition submitted in opposition to our application with 36 signatures on it, which the Cambridge Police Department is currently investigating as a potential forgery.
In the end, the Commission appeared to respond favorably to Mr. Kapsalis' pleas: "Please help us out", and "You would be directly hurting me" (License Commission Minutes, March 18, 2014). In reference to his restaurant tenant Brandon Arms, Chef and Owner of the Garden at the Cellar (who supported us), he also stated "I'm loyal to the people that work there, from the manager, to the bartenders, to the wait staff and to our very loyal chef, who is absolutely wonderful and he is renowned." (License Commission Minutes, March 18, 2014). Mr. Kapsalis didn't appear to be so loyal in a recent news article reporting that he kicked out that tenant without notice to the owner/chef, staff or customers. (The Story of a Beloved Cambridge Restaurant's Final Days in Business, Galen Moore, November 23, 2014). It also appears that he has now renovated that restaurant space and opened a new establishment, without permits or licenses, which of course would require a hearing before the License Commission (Scout Article, Emily Caccel, January 10, 2014).
Despite our showing of overwhelming public need for UpperWest at that location, including 500+ who signed our Petition (thanks for being real supporters), and the 30 thoughtful letters of support from Cambridge residents, the License Commission chose not to grant our licenses. Chair Andrea Jackson and Fire Chief Gerald Reardon appeared to want to avoid "devaluing" Mr. Kapsalis' license by granting one to us next door (even though Mr. Kapsalis didn't buy his license, and licenses can be moved anywhere in Cambridge, so proximity is not a contributing factor to devaluation).
Note, the Commission is not allowed to take competition into consideration when deciding whether to issue a liquor license. See an article on Attorney John Connell's website entitled, "When Applying For a Liquor License Can Your Competitors Object?", submitted by Gregory Birney. The article cites language from an ABCC decision stating that the "issue of competition is one that should not be considered when determining whether or not a license should be granted”.
Moreover, if you simply take a look at Harvard Square or Central Square it is clear that this is not the Commission's typical position. Check out a map that we made of liquor licenses in Cambridge. In fact, many new licenses were issued before and after our hearings to establishments in very close proximity to other licenses that have value.
You Can Help! Reach Out and Make a Difference for All Local Food Entrepreneurs
If the Commission's seemingly protectionist behavior towards an established competing business is not challenged, it could harm the restaurant economy in Cambridge. We feel strongly that new businesses should not be pushed out of Cambridge because of unfair treatment that could cause them to lose their investment.
We encourage you to reach out to the City Manager Richard Rossi at CityManager@CambridgeMA.gov (contact form here), who directly manages and supervises the License Commission, and request an explanation for the License Commission's behavior in our case. It would also help to reach out to the nine City Councillors individually (their email addresses are here). We believe this could help benefit every business owner coming before the Commission, and every resident who relies on the City's consistent and fair application of the laws.
City Council Run
After numerous meetings with City Councillors, the Mayor and the City Manager's office, we have realized that there are some changes that could be made to help this great City run better, especially for residents and local businesses who want to live here, work here, open a business here and patronize great local businesses in Cambridge. With Kim's strong legal background and experience, she believes that she is well suited for a position as a lawmaker for the City of Cambridge, which is why she has decided to run for Cambridge City Council in 2015. www.KimCourtney.org
Kim encourages Cambridge residents and businesses to reach out to her and share their positive experiences with Cambridge, as well as the areas where they feel that the City could do better!
What's Next for UpperWest?
We are still working hard on getting UpperWest open, with potential for the same location. For legal reasons, we will hold off on more details for now, but there should be announcements before long.
Thanks again to all our supporters!
Kim Courtney & Xavier Dietrich, Owners, UpperWest