Dispute brews over Suher liquor licenses in Northampton

Gombo owner and chef John Piskor said the Northampton License Commission’s decision  this week to not grant him an over-quote liquor license after they canceled the one he was set to receive from  business owner  Eric Suher “antagonistic.” The commission canceled two of Suher’s licenses after he failed to produce the proper paperwork for the state Department of Revenue.

Gombo owner and chef John Piskor said the Northampton License Commission’s decision this week to not grant him an over-quote liquor license after they canceled the one he was set to receive from business owner Eric Suher “antagonistic.” The commission canceled two of Suher’s licenses after he failed to produce the proper paperwork for the state Department of Revenue. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

The Northampton License Commission this week canceled two of business owner  Eric Suher’s all-alcohol liquor licenses.

The Northampton License Commission this week canceled two of business owner Eric Suher’s all-alcohol liquor licenses. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 02-02-2024 7:57 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The city’s License Commission this week canceled two of business owner Eric Suher’s liquor licenses that were to be transferred to The Parlor Room, the new owners of Iron Horse Music Hall, and Gombo, a downtown Cajun restaurant, as part of a larger agreement the board made with Suher last year to bring his dormant entertainment venues back to life.

Commissioners made the decision at Tuesday’s meeting after the real estate mogul once again failed to obtain a required certificate of good standing from the state’s Department of Revenue to complete the liquor license transfers. The commission had given Suher months of extensions to complete the deals.

“I don’t even know if any work has been done since our last meeting,” commissioner Helen Kahn said at the meeting. “To make another continuation at this point is jeopardizing what’s going on with The Parlor Room and with the Iron Horse.”

In a subsequent decision, the commission decided to grant one of the city’s seven over-quota licenses approved by the Legislature in November to The Parlor Room, while at the same time declining to offer one to Gombo. That led Gombo owner John Piskor to cry foul at what he deemed as an “antagonistic” decision.

Suher responds to commission

A certificate of good standing is a document provided by the state that is meant as proof that a business has properly filed and paid taxes. It is required for a transfer of liquor license, as well as selling a business or obtaining financing, according to the DOR’s website.

Suher told the commission that tax returns from the two businesses the licenses initially belonged to, Iron Horse Music Hall and The Basement, still needed to be completed from when they were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that they would not be able to be completed within an allotted time frame.

“It’s just not going to happen,” Suher said.

As the city of Northampton has reached its quota for available all-alcohol licenses, the licenses that belonged to Suher may not be issued to anyone and were effectively eliminated.

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However, the state did grant the city seven extra all-alcohol licenses last fall. Four of those licenses have already been granted to other businesses in the city, leaving three remaining.

“It would have been wonderful to have a transfer of licenses happen seamlessly, and then we have these additional licenses to use towards economic development for the city,” said commission chair Natasha Yakovlev. “I wish we weren’t in this situation for multiple reasons.”

The commission decided at Tuesday’s meeting to give one of the three licenses to The Parlor Room to use for the Iron Horse. The Parlor Room bought the Iron Horse for $150,000, which included the liquor license, the Iron Horse name and business. Since then, they have been renovating the space and are preparing for a May 1 opening.

In declining to give one of the last two licenses to Gombo, which opened last May and had hoped to acquire the license to add to its New Orleans-style menu, Kahn said that Piskor took a risk by entering into negotiations with Suher for a liquor license. Other interested restaurants should have a chance at obtaining one, she said.

“I know that there are other restaurants in the city who are interested in these licenses and just because they didn’t make a decision to enter into negotiations, I don’t know that they should necessarily be penalized from having that same opportunity,” she said.

Fellow commission member Jennifer Ewers questioned Kahn’s reasoning.

“It doesn’t seem fair to make the accommodation, you know, with one Eric Suher negotiation and not with the other,” she said. “I’m just a little uncomfortable at applying sort of one set of rules to one party and another set to another party, although I fully agree with what Helen’s saying.”

Piskor told the Gazette that he felt the decision to grant a license to The Iron Horse but not Gombo was “antagonistic.”

“I believe that all businesses, large or small, should have the same right to enterprise,” Piskor said. “Certainly for us, this feels kind of like a diss. I don’t know how else you would describe it.”

Although Gombo was ultimately denied a license at the meeting, Yakovlev said in a Friday interview that the commission would continue to deliberate on what to do with the remaining two licenses.

“We will always determine the right course of action in terms of how to distribute them,” Yakovlev said.

The drama between Suher and the commission continues nearly a year after a series of efforts by the city to get Suher to either sell or reopen his music venues. In addition to the Iron Horse deal and the transfer of the liquor license for The Basement to Gombo, Suher also sold the Green Room to the Berkshire Farm Collective, a cannabis retailer, for $75,000, and the Calvin Theater to The Bowery Presents, which runs 25 music venues in cities including Boston and New York.

Yakovlev said the Green Room license was successfully transferred to Berkshire Farm after Suher produced the certificate of good standing. The license transfer to The Bowery Presents is still pending.

Suher did not respond to requests for comment regarding the licenses.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.