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Why we see so many chain restaurants in, and coming to, Towson

Yesterday brought the unveiling of the names of three of the eight restaurants that will be opening at Towson Square. They are all chains — maybe pretty decent ones, I don’t know — and people have long lamented the shortage of good restaurants in the Towson area, a place one might think would attract a variety of offerings. The same could be said for the York Road strip where Harry Little Sub Shop and Stoneleigh Bakery just closed. People always say, “Why doesn’t someone open a cute little wine bar there?”

Here’s why: The county’s insane process of distributing liquor licenses. From an April 2012 editorial in the Baltimore Sun:

“If you would like to open a bar or restaurant that sells alcoholic beverages on the Liberty Road corridor in Baltimore County, a liquor license will run you $2,000. About a 20-minute drive away, Joe’s Crab Shack, a chain restaurant that’s moving into the Hunt Valley Towne Centre, just paid $225,000 for its liquor license. The reason? An antiquated system that allots licenses by population in districts drawn decades ago and allows those licenses to be bought and sold on the open market. In Randallstown, an inexplicable dead zone when it comes to dining options, there are plenty of licenses for the taking. In Timonium, Cockeysville and Hunt Valley [and Towson], those pieces of paper are worth far more than their weight in gold. Whatever purpose this once served has long since disappeared.” (Read the full piece here. And here’s a very comprehensive piece about the history of the law.)

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz was able to secure a few reforms in the last General Assembly session, but as the Baltimore Sun editorial notes, they won’t do Towson any good. So if you’re a wanna-be entrepreneur, you’re probably going to be discouraged at the idea of spending upwards of $200K for a liquor license, and your profits aren’t going to be as good if you can’t sell alcohol, and your chance of success dims. If you’re Applebee’s or Chili’s, that investment might not be such a big deal.

So, you can thank the liquor lobby, the businesses that support it, and the politicians who cave to it for the dearth of fun food venues in Towson.

-Kristine Henry
-Kristine Henry
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