For those in the restaurant business, a liquor license can be a deciding factor in whether or not customers choose to visit their establishment or not. A backlog at the SLA has led to lengthy waiting periods over the past year; some would-be restaurateurs have license requests remaining unfulfilled over a year after they submitted an initial request. For those who choose to open anyway without the license, they are stuck in limbo, paying astronomical NYC rent for their space while unable to generate the revenue they need because they cannot sell liquor. And for new bar owners, not granting a liquor license can be deadly since they can’t do any business whatsoever.
“It’s a sign that the SLA needs more resources to its job, whether it’s inspectors or staff to review applications,” says state senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, who represents the Chelsea and the upper west side area. “We have to make sure they are equipped to both help small businesses launch their restaurants or bars, but also ensure that the community is part of the process, whether it’s the local community board or elected officials, to weigh in on these applications. So I think it’s primarily a resource question, and personnel.”
“In order to operate successfully, business owners must have transparency and clear deadlines from their government,” said state assembly member Tony Simone. “When an application is submitted, the State Liquor Authority cannot leave applicants in a state of limbo for a year or more, all while paying rent and overhead, with no clear expectation on when a decision will be made.”
“New restaurants and bars rely on being able to get a liquor license quickly,” agreed state representative Alex Bores, who serves as assembly member for the district including parts of the Upper East Side, Midtown East, and Murray Hill.
“They are often on the hook to pay rent while they wait for approval, and long delays hurt everyone: the business owners, their prospective customers, and residents that are stuck looking at vacant storefronts. I look forward to working with the SLA to find ways to expedite the wait.”
A reporter from Straus News reached the SLA by phone and was told they would respond via email with comment. At the time of press the SLA had not responded to repeated email requests for comment.
While many agencies blamed COVID for delays, during the SLA delays in procession applications preceeded the pandemic. As recently as 2017, the agency was processing liquor license applications and granting those that had no problems within three to four months time. And applications to open new businesses actually plummeted in the early months of the pandemic when bars and restaurants were either shut down entirely or faced stringent restrictions. But despite the apparent drop in the number of applications, the SLA lead time to grant new licenses only increased.
One problem was under former Governor Andrew Cuomo, the SLA was being used to enforce capacity and spacing limitations in bars and restaurants.
Some are calling for more specific solutions. “The state legislature needs to amend the successful temporary liquor permit law they passed a couple of years ago to make more new businesses eligible for a temporary permit from the SLA so they can open and operate sooner, while the official license is processed,” says Andrew Rigie, director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.
New York City’s Nightlife Czar Ariel Palitz, who announced in March she was leaving April 22nd, had apparently already checked out of her job. Calls to Palitz over several seeks when she was still on the job were not returned. Her role would have been strictly as an advocate for bars and restaurants, however, since the SLA is a state agency not a city agency.
Governor Kathy Hochul over a year ago put into her 2022 budget that 39 new SLA employees were to be hired and 30 of them were to be assigned to processing licenses. But it does not seem to have made a dent in the long lead time of SLA applications. And it does not appear there were any new funds being allocated in the current budget that was due on April 1 but which got caught up in protracted negotiations between the governor and lawmakers.