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New York Caterers Fight Back Against Rules Designed to Rein In Large Events

Proposed regulations from the New York State Liquor Authority would limit access to one-day permits for large events.

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Photo: Eric Vitale Photography

Hosting large-scale events in New York City as we know it may never be the same.

The New York State Liquor Authority (SLA) has proposed rules to limiting access to one-day permits for large events. Under current rules, operators with a liquor license may obtain one-day permits to hold events at off-site venues. Under the proposed new rules:

• All operators will be limited to four full liquor and four beer and wine permits per year for events of 1,000 attendees or more.
• All off-site venues will be limited to hosting four full liquor and four beer and wine events per year for events of 1,000 attendees or more.
• The local Community Board must be notified 30 days in advance of any event of 1,000 attendees or more.

The proposal, which will be addressed at a hearing on Wednesday, has drawn ire from the catering community.

Following interviews with several prominent catering companies and the New York City Hospitality Alliance, it appears what the authority is trying to address is the spate of very large one-night, pop-up nightclubs and/or dance parties taking place in unlicensed premises such as warehouses with potential safety hazards under the guise of being legitimate, and private, catered affairs.

“In New York City, there are quite a rigorous number of legitimate caterers that do a lot more than four large parties per year at legitimate locations, and without those rentals we’d be in serious trouble,” says Robert Bookman, a partner at Pesetsky & Bookman representing the New York City Hospitality Alliance, an organization that opposes the proposed regulations. “We are going to have to come up with a way to let the SLA address legitimate regulatory concerns without impacting the legitimate catering industry.”

A representative for the State Liquor Authority did not respond to a request for comment.

Abigail Kirsch and Great Performances are among the top caterers that serve events of 1,000 or more guests throughout the year—and both companies oppose the proposed regulations.

“Limiting the number of permits that are available for bars would essentially drive the business from off-site venues we can cater to hotels or another licensed establishment. … It hurts the venue and the caterer with both short- and long-term financial losses,” says Chris Diviney, general manager at Abigail Kirsch, whose large-scale guest events are all corporate and philanthropic events that have been “issue-free.” “The SLA has always been a good partner to us, and history will show that we are a low-risk permit base.”

Dean Martinus, president at Great Performances, says that his company executed 70 events of more than 1,000 guests from 2016 to 2017, including the New York City Food & Wine Festival. “We need to educate the SLA that if their intent is to stop underground raves and illegal dance parties, other business would be negatively impacted by generalizing such a statute,” he says. “Not-for-profits would be greatly affected, as would any unlicensed venue that has the space to accommodate an audience of this size.”

Other catering companies express similar sentiments.

“These are galas and fund-raisers for New York City and the world,” says Pinch Food Design C.E.O. Bob Spiegel. “I don’t understand why the SLA would damper such a thriving party scene. These are all dangerous things for New York City, and people that are part of these fund-raising committees and C.E.O.s probably don’t know this is going on.”

Spiegel adds that it would impact caterers solely based on the venues available because said venues may have maxed out their events. “I think every party in New York City will be 950 people,” he adds.

For Will Keh, managing partner at Cloud Catering, the confusion lies with the issues the SLA are trying to address. “They’re casting such a wide net; everyone applies for permits but it would be nice if it wasn’t such a general sweep,” he says. “I don’t think this will prevent events from happening; it’s just going to dictate where they are held. And as time goes by, margins will be squeezed tighter and tighter.”

If caterers are forced to pick and choose—and only select the events that yield the best margins—the cultural impact would be tremendous as nonprofit organizations would be hurt most.

Unlicensed venues from Basketball City and Duggal Greenhouse to all the piers (where the New York City Wine & Food Festival takes place) and even Central Park would be impacted. While an increase in liquor license applications would no doubt result should the proposals pass, there’s a hiccup with that notion as well: Managing liquor is a full-time business that a lot of venues are not currently set up for—not to mention have the square footage necessary to store liquid assets.

“If you limit the venue, you’re putting every venue with a business plan model out of business, which would be a catastrophe,” says Andrew Cavitolo, C.E.O. of Riviera Caterers. “Prices of venues, both licensed and not, would increase significantly as it becomes a pay-to-play situation which then eliminates any sort of cultural impact to the city. You can also forget about multi-day events.”

The hospitality alliance has encouraged members to testify at the hearing—to be held at 317 Lenox Ave., on the fifth floor, or submit comments to the authority.

“It’s awareness and we want to be able to say to the SLA that we’re trying to be proactive,” Martinus says.

Bookman says that SLA chairman Vincent G. Bradley and his board appear open to listening to the concerns of catering companies. “They’re not looking to inadvertently sweep up the entire catering industry,” he says, suggesting that any new rules should differentiate between caterers and other groups.

Diviney agrees. “This statute is a little misplaced; it’s perhaps geared toward club-like, warehouse parties that neither Abigail Kirsch nor our competitors would be involved in,” he says. “I can only guess that when making [this proposal] they didn’t compartmentalize who would be an applicant and that we should be put in different buckets.”

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