By Carla Zanoni
INWOOD — When he opened his restaurant in Inwood last year, Felix Fermin named it Vino Verso because his plan was to offer wine pairings with every item on his menu.
But there is still no vino at Vino Verso.
After two failed attempts at getting a liquor license, Fermin says he believes he has been unfairly punished by a backlash against new restaurants in the neighborhood. Residents had been complaining about noise coming from recently opened restaurants, leading Community Board 12 to be more wary about allowing more bars in the area.
“I have nothing to do with those restaurants and have a completely different business model,” Fermin said, standing in front of an iron wine rack that displays bottles of still and sparkling water at the bar. “We want to bring quality food and drinks to the neighborhood and not just a scene.”
Without wine or alcohol at his small restaurant on Henshaw Street, between Riverside Drive and Dyckman Street, Fermin has changed the menu from wine pairings that accompany “global cuisine” dishes to selling homemade sodas and faux-cocktails, a shift he said costs between $300 to $500 per night in lost sales.
“Every night I have people come in who look at the menu and leave the minute they realize we have no alcohol,” he said.
Fermin said he has cut back hours of operation, limiting it to Thursday through Sunday service, and laid off three staff members. He also said he is behind in real estate taxes for the space.
The question of Vino Verso’s liquor license has hung in the balance for more than a year.
In July 2009, before the restaurant opened, Community Board 12 tabled a vote on Fermin's application for a wine and beer license because it could not reach a quorum.
Then things got more complicated, according to CB12 Board chair Pamela Palanque-North.
When the application came up again in the fall of 2009, the board gave a positive recommendation to the State Liquor Authority, but an error on the resolution listed Fermin as the owner (he was then the general manager). That mistake led the SLA to deny his application.
CB12 reviewed the resolution afterward, but the board was reluctant to vote in favor of it again as it reached the board in the middle of a scandal surrounding a questionable liquor license recommendation by the board’s former president Manny Velasquez, which resulted in his stepping down from his post.
“I tried to get the board to understand that this was an administrative issue and that the board had already approved the license and we shouldn’t stand in the way of him running his business,” Palanque-North said. “Even with that being said, he absolutely still got caught up in the situation and bad timing. We tried to correct it, but we couldn’t.”
When Fermin reapplied for a full liquor license in May 2010, many residents were complaining about noise coming from new restaurants on Dyckman Street. So the board was even more cautious about awarding liquor licenses in the area.
Palanque-North said Fermin's experience points to a larger problem: board members and business owners who need to better understand how to navigate the complex liquor-license approval process. She recently met with the SLA to discuss ways to streamline the board's approach, similar to the way of Community Board 3 in Midtown, which processes applications within two weeks.
Fermin said his lawyer is in the process of filing a third application, but he worries that it will once again be denied.
“I feel frustrated that we are being judged on the shortcomings of other restaurants,” he said. “I didn’t want to make noise, but it wound up hurting me at the end.”