The Natick Board of Selectmen last night opposed a well-known family restaurant's request for a Keno license, which officials fear could set precedent that would lead more local eateries to incorporate gambling into their businesses.
The Morse Tavern on East Central Street will appear before the Massachusetts State Lottery Commission and have to fight the disapproval of the Natick selectmen at a to-be-determined date, probably within the next three months, according to town attorney David DeLuca.
The selectmen voted unanimously to write a letter of objection for use in the state hearing, which the Lottery Commission will rely heavily on, DeLuca said.
Selectmen members said that while they all enjoyed the eatery’s dining and new Americana theme, the addition of Keno, a low-cost gambling game, to the tavern would unfavorably change the the restaurant's atmosphere, and would emphasize the sale of alcohol over food.
“Our concerns are there are no other restaurants in town that have Keno, and that it would change the business you’re running,” Selectmen Chair Charles Hughes said.
Morse Tavern owner John Stournaras, who has been in the restaurant business for decades and runs the eatery with his wife and children, said he filed for the license because he has received numerous requests from customers for the game.
“Nobody will care more for that location and the interests and benefits and what would be positive as much as me and my family,” he said. “We don’t propose to put something there that would hurt the location or the area, or change the restaurant business we maintained and operated there.”
Board member Paul Joseph praised the tavern’s current food, atmosphere, and business model, but said he did not feel comfortable with the restaurant’s move toward Keno.
“I have been in restaurants that have Keno as an amenity, and I cannot think of one where I feel comfortable saying it’s purely a family restaurant,” Joseph said. “The nature of having Keno shifts the primary attraction from food and incidental consumption of alcohol to staying and consuming alcohol.”
Board member Joshua Ostroff said he worried about the bar employees properly identifying customers old enough to play the game.
“This is not something you have a lot of familiarity with, and the members of this board are concerned about that,” Ostroff said.
Board vice-chair Carol Gloff said a select group of constituents have approached her about the issue, expressing discontent with the addition of a gambling game to a well-established and popular family restaurant.
“An individual with expertise in the area of social issues feels that in general, the addition of Keno in a restaurant is a major step toward gambling, and they felt it was going to be doing the restaurant and area of Natick a disservice,” Gloff said.
Town meeting member Susan Salamoff, who also sits on the building committee for the town’s new community senior center, said the restaurant’s location also played a part in her disapproval for Keno.
“When the new senior community center is up and running, [Morse Tavern] is just a few businesses down where people may wish to take their families, and Keno isn’t an atmosphere that is appropriate for youth,” Salamoff said. “Natick doesn’t have Keno in any restaurants, and I would hope the board continues take the position it has taken.”
Stournaras said he does not believe the presence of the gambling game would majorly alter the atmosphere of his establishment.
“I think in every restaurant, regardless of Keno, it’s up to the people who are running the operation in terms of what to present to the public and what to maintain in their place,” he said.
If the license is approved, state regulations would require restaurant employees to attend Keno educational training sessions to learn how to properly identify customers and recognize addictive gambling behavior, Stournaras said.
“Keno is an amenity. We never really thought about it until it was brought to our attention,” he said.
DeLuca provided board members with a list of 24 businesses that provide Keno in Natick, with most of the convenience store variety.
DeLuca also said if the lottery commission approves the restaurant to host Keno, the selectmen still have a say in the future regarding licensing.
“If something were to go astray, there is a process to suspend, revoke, or modify any license,” he said.
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