“We didn’t have the money to buy a liquor license,” remembers Kevin D’Egidio, co-chef and co-owner of Helm, a restaurant in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood. In Philadelphia, liquor licenses can cost as much as $170,000, not including the cost of the product that needs to be ordered to support a beverage program. Kevin and his team could either save up the money needed to secure a full liquor license, which could take a while, or open Helm with a BYOB license, allowing guests to bring in their own wine, beer or spirit.
D’Egidio and his business partner, Mike Griffiths, decided to open Helm in March of this year with a BYOB license so that they could get into the kitchen sooner. “We just wanted to cook,” he says. Since they’ve opened, they have racked up accolades and been included on “best of” lists in the city.
For new, independent restaurants, having a full, unrestricted liquor license is beneficial because beverage programs tend to have higher profit margins than food. Beverage programs also create another way for guests to connect with a restaurant through signature cocktails, beer, and wine, which are all chosen to complement the food menu.
At BYOB restaurants, the staff has to do extra work to create a bridge between what a guest has brought and what’s on the menu for the night. Here are a few ways that the team at Helm helps guide their guests and how the kitchen makes BYOB work for them.
Make your own mixers.
The Helm team does have a beverage program of sorts for guests that bring in their own spirits. “We’ll make notes on the reservation if someone says they’re bringing in a certain bottle of wine or spirit,” D’Egidio says. The team can then prepare recommendations for the guests before they arrive. The kitchen also makes bitters and syrups for guests who bring in their own spirits so they can still enjoy a cocktail with their meal. “If someone brings in a rye we’ll offer them bitters and stuff so they can make an old-fashioned,” D’Egidio explains.
Help guests with wine pairings.
For restaurants with full liquor licenses, wine, spirits, and beer knowledge is a key part of staff training since guests rely on the server to help them navigate a list. At Helm, D’Egidio says that while the staff doesn’t have a list to guide guests through, they do use their liquor knowledge to recommend which wine, beer, or spirit guests should bring in to pair with the current menu. “A lot of our servers have wine knowledge from other places that they’ve worked at,” he says. “Guests will even call the restaurant to ask what they should bring in to have with dinner and the staff will work with people to help them bring in the right bottle of wine.”
Get creative in the back of the house.
Not having a liquor license means the team at Helm has to get creative in other ways to make the profit necessary to pay staff and buy ingredients for the ever-changing menu. “Our margins are much smaller because we don’t sell wine or beer so we don’t sit on a lot of product,” D’Egidio says of the back of the house. That means ordering has to be tight and not have too much leftover product that can spoil. “We forage when we can,” he continues. Keeping the menu small is also a way to keep product cost down and make sure that the margins make sense for the restaurant.
Put the guest first.
For D’Egidio, the positives of having a BYOB license extend beyond what it means for his restaurant. It also means he can offer more value to his guests.
“The good thing about a BYOB is that a lot of people that want to go out to eat can,” he says. “Going out to eat is a luxury and it can be really expensive to buy a bottle of wine off of a wine list. Here, people that don’t have much money can come in to eat, buy two or three plates and not break the bank.”
While most chefs would see having a BYOB license as a challenge, D’Egidio sees it as a positive. For him, it keeps the atmosphere more approachable for his diners. “We’re very high quality food and service without pretension,” he says. “We’re on the same level as our guests and it feels like someone’s home. The whole idea is we’re doing what we’re doing because we love it.”