2013-10-03 / Front Page

Museum Licensing Questioned

By Tom Shevlin

A recently-issued city directive is throwing doubt over the ability of museums and tourist attractions to sell food onsite without proper approvals from the City Council.

In a letter dated Sept. 25 and addressed to the Preservation Society of Newport County, Beechwood Art Museum, and the owners of Belcourt of Newport, City Clerk Kathy Silvia wrote that “the City is undertaking a survey to determine if various facilities are required to have a victualing licenses based upon their selling food on a regular basis, whether or not such food is prepared on the premises.”

In the past, operations such as Marble House, The Elms, Belcourt, and the Astors' Beechwood have relied on local caterers to provide boxed lunches and light refreshments to visitors on site. The proposed welcome center at The Breakers is also geared toward a similar model.

It was that debate that brought the issue to the attention of the city.

Opponents argued that the 3,000-square-foot ticketing and cafe facility represented a fullfledged restaurant and as such was subject to commercial licensing requirements.

Chief among them: securing a victualing license.

Generally speaking, victualing li- censes are only granted to restaurant facilities operating in the general business districts, or as allowed by special use through the city’s Zoning Board of Review.

In this case, each of the intended recipients operates venues in residential zones.

By right, the Preservation Society has been permitted to operate in a commercial fashion at many of its properties – hosting weddings, conferences, concerts, and corporate events to help further its mission.

The former owners of Belcourt Castle, however, ran into difficulties as they sought permission to host events at that property. The current owner, who has renamed the Gothic manse Belcourt of Newport and is marketing it as an art gallery and event space, expects to open to the public next summer.

However, what licenses it–as well as other nearby museum spaces– might need remains to be seen.

According to Silvia, Section 5-24- 1 of the Rhode Island General Laws, “empowers the City to regulate the keeping of taverns, victualing houses, cookshops… by granting licenses for those activities, upon any compensation for the benefit of the town or city that they see fit to impose."

It further defines a “victualing house” as any business where food is “prepared and/or consumed on the premises.”

“Thus,” Silvia said, “food that is prepared off-premises but delivered to the site by a caterer on a regular basis for sale to visitors is subject to a victualing license.”

That could put a damper in the operations of some area nonprofits – most notably the Preservation Society, whose Elms and Marble House cafes have become a popular point of diversion for visitors touring the historic homes.

The law further states that any venue that has food delivered by a caterer and stored on the premises prior to selling to its visitors is also subject to inspection by the R.I. Health Department. However, Silvia noted that provision does not apply to private events “whereby the event holder contracts with a caterer, such as for weddings and corporate dinners.”

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