Minneapolis restaurants want alcohol rules changed

MAYA RAO | Updated 5/28/2014

Minneapolis works with bars, restaurants to adjust laws that require a majority of sales from food – tough in era of craft beer.

Bread and Pickle Restaurant.
Tom Wallace

Want to order a few $6 Surlys with a cheap burger at your neighborhood bar in Minneapolis? It may be hurting the owner.

Restaurants complain that it’s increasingly hard to abide by decades-old municipal laws that they sell more food than alcohol, and offers all the wrong incentives to sell cheaper booze just to meet the requirements at a time when customers are flocking to more pricey craft beers.

City Hall agrees. Regulators are moving to lift restrictions that hundreds of establishments derive no more than 30 to 40 percent of revenue from selling alcohol, which is expected to require not only a City Council vote but also a voter referendum in November.

The rules “aren’t realistic anymore,” said Minneapolis licensing director Grant Wilson.

While a push to lift the cap to 50 percent failed to advance last year, many new council members and the new mayor, Betsy Hodges, campaigned on improving antiquated business ordinances.

Since 1983, the city has required restaurants and bars in larger commercial nodes outside of downtown to cap sales of alcohol at 40 percent if they are within 500 feet of a residential zone. The rule, affecting about 200 businesses, aims to protect residents from raucous bars and noisy drunks.

Proponents of abolishing the ordinance say it’s outdated and doesn’t take into account that more expensive alcohol skews the ratio but doesn’t lead to any increase in neighborhood disturbances. A fancier beer, for instance, could cost twice as much as two or three cheap ones and skew a restaurant’s food to alcohol ratio.

In 1996, voters approved an amendment to the city charter allowing restaurants in smaller commercial areas to sell wine and strong beer, as long as at least 70 percent of their sales came from food. Customers could only be served alcohol if they ordered a meal, too.

Nearly 70 restaurants fit that requirement, largely in south and southwest Minneapolis, including Chatterbox Pub, Tin Fish, Birchwood Cafe and Kings Wine Bar.

City leaders are drafting an ordinance amendment that eliminates both rules, but the latter requires a change in the charter. The city’s charter commission will hold a hearing next Wednesday on the matter, after a group of restaurants spent months gathering more than 5,000 signatures to try to put the question on the ballot.

Barry Clegg, the commission chair, said about 11,000 signatures by registered voters would be needed for a referendum. To pass in November, it would need support from 55 percent of voters.

The community organization representing the Hale, Page, and Diamond Lake neighborhoods in southwest Minneapolis wrote to city leaders Monday in support of lifting the 70/30 rule.

The ratio, their letter said, is becoming harder to meet in part because of higher-priced micro brews that are popular in restaurants and increase alcohol revenue.

“Our city has become a real foodie town, which is a great thing,” said Molly Broder, who owns Broders’ Pasta Bar, Cucina Italiana and Terzo Vino Bar, and has helped lead the petition drive. “The only problem is, we need liquor laws that are up-to-date with the times.”

She said that when customers order a $80 bottle of wine with a couple plates of pasta, she has to worry about selling enough food. “Why shouldn’t they have that bottle of wine if they want? Why should I say, ‘No, I can’t sell it, you have to buy this $20 bottle of wine’? … They are spending a little more because their tastes have changed.”

The food and alcohol ratios are part of a complex patchwork of regulations for Minneapolis businesses.