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St. Paul Considers Liquor Law Changes to Attract Restaurants



St. Paul is reviewing its on-sale liquor license ordinance as more restaurants look to open in neighborhoods with license limits.

Allowing more restaurants to obtain a full liquor license and changing a mandatory food-to-alcohol ratio are up for debate in St. Paul. 

Restaurant owners and residents alike of the city’s Wards Three and Four, who clamor for dining where they can also enjoy a cocktail, seek the changes. Both the owners and city licensing officials said the demands for new regulations reflect everything from how bars and restaurants have changed over time to how people dine out.

“I would love to be able to have a liquor license,” said Joan Schmitt, owner of Highland Park neighborhood spot Joan’s in the Park. Because all eight on-sale liquor licenses in Ward Three are spoken for, her namesake restaurant can only offer patrons wine and beer. 

Customers are disappointed when they ask for liquor and find out there is none, she said.

“I love Ward Three but I wouldn’t open up another restaurant here,” noted David Burley, one of the owners of Blue Plate Restaurant Co., which got its start in 1993 with Highland Grill. “I’d love to be able to offer a real Bloody Mary at Highland Grill.”

Without the ability for a restaurant to serve liquor, “we get sandwich shops,” said Kathy Carruth, executive director of the Highland District Council, one of the groups pushing for change. “We have at least five restaurant owners who would jump at the chance for an on-sale license.”

“We have restaurant owners who choose not to come to St. Paul because they cannot obtain full liquor licenses,” said Dan Niziolek, deputy director of the St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections.

But in other parts of St. Paul, where on-sale liquor licenses are more plentiful, there are worries that relaxing regulations to benefit some neighborhoods will hurt others that have dealt for years with problem bars and rowdy behavior. That’s why DSI and Ward Three Council Member Chris Tolbert are proceeding carefully with possible liquor regulatory updates. What was promoted as the first in a series of community meetings was held June 10 in Highland neighborhood. Another meeting is planned for later this summer.

“We have liquor laws that are not reflective of the realities of the restaurant business today,” said Tolbert. But while some groups want to see the city’s per-ward on-sale liquor license cap changed, Tolbert said it has to be done in a way that works for the entire city.

Set through an old system of liquor patrol districts, St. Paul’s city charter restricts the number of licenses by ward, and has a citywide cap of 215. About 20 are available, according to DSI staff. But Wards Three and Four, and Ward Two neighborhoods outside of downtown, have reached their license caps. In Ward Two, Council Member Dave Thune’s constituents have told him they don’t want more on-sale licenses outside of downtown.

“Where development was historically is where licenses were issued,” said Kris Schweinler, who oversees liquor licensing for DSI. “Clearly that is not in balance now.” But even moving open licenses to other wards could be problematic and at the least require changing the city charter.

One way business owners get around the cap is by opening in an existing commercial development district, or by establishing a new district. The city has six districts, including downtown, Selby Avenue, Energy Park, University and Dale, Interstate 94 and Hamline Avenue, and a district around the old Amtrak station in West Midway. Most of those districts never became sites of bustling nightlife. Instead, individual businesses have gone through commercial development district applications, which include a neighborhood hearing and a hearing before the St. Paul Planning Commission. Businesses that have done that include the Highland Village Chipotle, so it could serve margaritas. Schweinler called the commercial development districts a “Band-Aid” approach.

Another change sought by restaurant owners is to the city’s requirement that 60 percent of restaurant sales be from food. The so-called 60/40 rule is meant to keep restaurants from operating as bars, but given the popularity of more costly craft beers, restaurant owners said meeting the cap is a challenge even for places serving wine and beer. 

“The 60/40 thing is somewhat outdated,” said Burley. “The price of food has not kept up with the price of alcohol. God forbid you order two beers with your burger.” A past president of Minnesota Restaurant Association, Burley said the ratio is a problem throughout the state.

Minneapolis City Councilors got rid of a similar ordinance in September and two months later voters Minneapolis voters threw out a longstanding 70/30 ratio for restaurants in residential areas. More than 83 percent voted yes to amend the city's charter. Minneapolis now has ordinances that define a restaurant by spelling out regulations on having a full kitchen, having a full menu prepared by kitchen staff and the time food is available. 


St. Paul Roundup

Ox Cart Ale House held its grand opening June 30. Joe Kasel and Kevin Geisen, who also own the Salt Cellar and Eagle Street Grill, opened the East Sixth Street restaurant in Lowertown. And coming soon is a brick and mortar version of Big River Pizza, which will open in the Lofts at Farmers Market.

 

The owners of Muddy Waters in Minneapolis are taking their approach to food, beer and coffee to St. Paul. Sarah Schrantz and Paddy Whelan announced plans to open Dark Horse in what was the Twin Cities Magic and Costume store at 7th and Wacouta streets. An August opening is planned.

 

St. Paul Meat Shop opened on Grand Avenue in the Mac Market neighborhood. It not only features an array of meats, but also serves sandwiches. The proprietors also own the St. Paul Cheese Shop near Grand and Snelling avenues and France 44 in Minneapolis.

 

About half a dozen St. Paul taprooms kicked off the Sunday sale of growlers July 5. That was the first day of Sunday sales in the capitol city. One news outlet reported that Urban Growler sold about 50 of the jugs of beer in two hours.

 

Graves Hospitality has announced it will open Citizen Supper Club on the first floor of the Crowne Plaza Riverfront hotel. The new spot will have a mid-century modern atmosphere. No opening date has been announced. The hotel is being converted into an InterContinental Hotel.

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