Liquor license change will benefit small caterers, owners say

Victor Ocasio

Originally published in Newsday

A new state law will give smaller catering businesses more flexibility to include liquor when serving events.

Under the law, smaller caterers who don’t have large on-site dining rooms or halls at their facilities will now be able to apply for state liquor licenses, an option previously only available to larger caterers with ample dining space. The new rules are aimed at helping small caterers be competitive when bidding for off-site events.

Before the change, which took effect last month,  only catering businesses with facilities to seat 50 or more diners were allowed to secure liquor licenses from the New York State Liquor Authority, allowing them to offer spirits, as well as beer, wine and cider, at off-site events.

"New York's antiquated and confusing liquor laws make it nearly impossible for small catering businesses to get off the ground without a big investment in their own event space,” Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-North Hills), who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said in a statement. “At a time when so many of these businesses are still struggling from the pandemic era, they deserve a break from onerous and costly regulations.”

Assemb. Fred W. Thiele Jr. (D-Sag Harbor), who sponsored the bill in the Assembly, said the law change gives smaller operations more opportunities while giving consumers more choice in who they hire to run events.

“I’d rather have small businesses spending their time growing their business than dealing with arcane and unproductive regulations that don’t benefit anybody,” Thiele said.

John Kowalenko, who owns Bridgehampton-based Art of Eating catering with his wife, Cheryl Stair, said the new rules are a boon to small caterers.

"You’re talking about a big impact statewide. I know thousands of off-site caterers in the same situation," said Kowalenko, who said he first brought up the issue to Thiele’s office more than four years ago. "If they could get the license, their revenues would increase."

Under the old rules, Kowalenko said small caterers who couldn’t secure licenses could apply for one-day permits that would allow them to offer only beer, wine or cider at off-site events. If clients wanted liquor, the caterer would have to contract with a larger licensed caterer, essentially “subcontracting themselves” out of revenue.

“It made no sense to anybody,” he said.

Jeannie Mackenzie, owner and founder of catering business Seasons of Southampton and Clamman Seafood Market, said caterers like herself previously had to send clients to larger caterers with liquor licenses. 

“Off-premise caterers have always been at a disadvantage when it comes to liquor because of the way the rules were,” she said.

Mackenzie said she plans to apply for a liquor license in the coming months.