NEWARK – The future of a West Ocean City restaurant remains in question this week after a change to its liquor license was denied.
The Worcester County Board of License Commissioners (BLC) on Wednesday denied a license upgrade request from Mad Fish. Though the restaurant’s connections asked for a change in its license to allow for a new open-air concept — to be created with shipping containers — to replace the facility that burned down in 2019, board members cited the potential for noise.
“Your operation may, by its nature, unduly affect the peace and the tranquility of the neighborhood,” said William Esham, BLC chairman.
Mad Fish, which was located at the former site of the Captain’s Galley and OC Fish Company, was destroyed in a fire in August of 2019. After getting plans for a new building for the waterfront site approved last year, owner Cole Taustin said COVID-19 forced him to adjust those plans. With capacity limitations on restaurants and the public wary of gathering indoors, Taustin came up with the concept of an open-air facility made up of seven shipping containers.
“This is cutting edge,” said Michael Gershenfeld, chief operating officer of the Taustin Group. “This an outstanding reaction to the current environment.”
Because the Class B restaurant license Mad Fish held requires 51% food sales and 70 seats at tables, which the layout of the shipping containers wouldn’t permit, Taustin submitted an application for a Class D bar/tavern license with approval for eight-piece live entertainment. The Class D license only requires 50 seats enclosed.
At the start of Wednesday’s hearing, attorney Hugh Cropper, representing Mad Fish, acknowledged that there’d been opposition from neighbors regarding the entertainment aspect of the proposal. As a result, he said Taustin had amended his request to allow for just three pieces of unamplified entertainment. That, he argued, would be indiscernible along the commercial harbor as boats passed by and neighboring establishments hosted live bands.
“You’re not even going to hear it…,” Cropper said. “I think this is a huge reduction not only in what he proposed but what he has now.”
Taustin, whose family has been in the local restaurant business for more than 80 years, said that the shipping container concept, which would be known as Pier 23, was going to be an operation focused on food. He even offered to continue adhering to the 51% food requirement associated with the Class B license.
“Pier 23 is first and foremost a restaurant,” he said. “It’s not intended to be a nightclub. It’s not intended to be a tavern.”
He said he’d only initially asked for eight-piece entertainment to allow for future diversification.
“The old saying, ‘nothing good happens after midnight’ — I believe in it,” he said.
Taustin stressed that he’d created the shipping container concept because he felt it addressed lingering COVID-19 concerns and was something he’d be able to afford.
“As many may not realize, the restaurant business operates on some pretty tight margins,” he said. “So you’ve got to be able to play things pretty close to the vest, especially the first two years of operating. Because I was operating in 2018 at a net loss and I hadn’t finished 2019, I was not able to show profitable dollars to the insurance company so my business interruption claim was tossed out the window. I was not able to recoup any of that money, I was only able to recoup a portion of the building insurance.”
Architect Keith Iott, who has done work for Seacrets, said the containers had been grouped around the proposed stage area to help control sound. Nevertheless, the president of the Marsh Harbour homeowners association said property owners — many of whom submitted letters in opposition to the license upgrade — were worried about the potential for noise. He said the distance from the proposed stage to his residence was 670 feet and that the entrance to the community was even closer. He added that residents in Marsh Harbour could already hear music from Harborside and sometimes Sunset Grille.
Though Mad Fish had entertainment when it was open before, the homeowners association president said the open air concept was uncharted water.
“This appears to me to be a totally different animal,” he said.
Taustin pointed out he’d been involved with BLU Crabhouse for the past 10 years and that there had been no noise complaints there in spite of the fact it was very close to neighboring residences.
“I do have the best interests of this area in mind,” he said.
Esham asked how he could control noise without any building enveloping the space.
“I’m creating a relaxing dining environment,” Taustin said, adding that “eat drink chill” would be the Pier 23 motto. “It’s not eat drink party. It’s not eat drink rage.”
Taustin added that he’d been remiss in not addressing neighbors’ concerns prior to Wednesday’s hearing.
Esham said that as required, the hearing had been publicly advertised. He said he’d also asked staff to notify the surrounding neighborhood “because of the nature of” the original request.
Attorney Demetrios Kaouris, representing some neighbors opposed to the license request, said the operation would disrupt the neighborhood, potentially creating noise and impacting traffic.
Cropper maintained that when the site had been home to Captains Galley it had featured live entertainment and even more patrons than Pier 23 would.
“It’s a commercial fishing harbor,” he said. “It’s not tranquil. I think it can coexist with the neighborhood.”
Taustin offered to amend the license request to not include anything other than background music that would be cut off at 9 p.m. He said he could come back if he wanted to expand on that after he’d talked to neighbors and assuaged their concerns.
BLC member Charles Nichols made a motion to deny the request based on its potential to disturb the neighborhood. BLC member Reese Cropper and Esham agreed.
“It is an open-air business that’s going to have food and entertainment,” Esham said. “All previous businesses were in fact structures — restaurants — they were in an enclosed area.”
He said Taustin had offered nothing in the way of soundproofing.
“We are here to protect the peace and tranquility of the neighborhood,” he said, adding that there were hundreds of residences in the area. “That’s our job.”
Taustin said that because of the seating requirements associated with the Class B license, he would not be able to begin construction of Pier 23.
“I’m actually out of business now,” he said.