Millburn Chef Fighting to Change New Jersey’s Liquor License Laws

Chef Ehren Ryan, the owner of Common Lot, is advocating for an updated law allowing BYOs to sell beer, wine and strong ciders.

Ehren Ryan
Chef Ehren Ryan owns Common Lot, a BYO in Millburn. Photo courtesy of Ben Meaker

Owners of New Jersey BYO restaurants are looking to change the state’s liquor license laws, which have been in place since the end of Prohibition.

Chef Ehren Ryan, the owner of Common Lot, a BYO in Millburn, made it through the pandemic. Now, with other Jersey restaurant owners, he’s advocating for an updated law allowing BYOs to sell beer, wine and strong ciders, “which would make a drastic change to their profit.” Ryan’s idea for a new license would preserve a competitive advantage for current license holders, as they will be the only restaurants in the state permitted to offer spirits, cocktails and a full bar.

In New Jersey, the number of liquor licenses a municipality can issue is restricted by population. The limited supply—licenses usually only come on the market when a restaurant with one shuts down—results in high cost.

“There’s only so much people are willing to pay for food,” Ryan says. “Whereas people may be pretty much okay with spending $9 or more on a Corona.”

The New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association organized a meeting on July 11 to discuss the liquor license system. Ryan sat on the panel representing New Jersey BYOs.

“The more you speak out to town and local officials, the stronger the argument will be,” Ryan says. “Eventually, they will have no choice but to listen and negotiate.”

Why not press for a full liquor license?
Ehren Ryan:
BYOs don’t have the footprint to build a bar in their restaurants. For the [existing] license holders, their competitive advantage would be that they can sell spirits and cocktails. We are just asking to sell beer, wine or cider. It would be a huge benefit for BYOs and an increase in revenue.

What are the challenges in fighting for change?
Right now it is just the lack of political compliance. There are a handful of senators and legislators that want change, but there are also a lot that have stayed quiet on the topic.

How do the current laws affect prospects for New Jersey restaurants?
The generation [of cooks and chefs] coming through now, in my kitchen, don’t really see a future in New Jersey and owning their own restaurant. They know the cost of a liquor license and they know a BYO is really hard without the subsidies of liquor sales. The ability to sell wine, beer or cider would just be amazing from a profit standpoint.

What’s next following the town hall?
Downtown New Jersey, a nonprofit that deals with municipalities and rejuvenating downtown areas, wants to get together with us. We spoke with the New Jersey Brewers Association and the Brewers Guild of New Jersey. We really need numbers, and I encourage people to reach out to me so we can drum up more support in the towns. Governor [Phil] Murphy stated the liquor licenses are outdated in the state, and I want to hold him to that.

What can BYO owners and locals do to help?
People should target their local assemblymen and women. Repeat the story that a beer, wine and cider license would be a huge benefit for the town and could rejuvenate a lot of downtown areas. From there, they can go to [state] legislators. Push the local level; that’s where it starts!

There is nothing I would love more than to see the New Jersey dining scene explode and become a destination. A new law will help grow the industry for the next generation.

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