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With Its Liquor License Caps Gone, St. Paul Waits for Restaurants

A major change to St. Paul liquor license regulations in 2016 helped several restaurants that wanted to serve cocktails with meals. But a potentially long list of eateries seeking liquor licenses hasn’t materialized—not yet, anyway. 

Fewer than a dozen restaurants have sought full liquor licenses since the changes took effect in the spring. In December 2015 the St. Paul City Council unanimously approved a city charter change that lifted the citywide and ward limits for on-sale liquor licenses. The charter change, which took effect 90 days after council adoption, opened the door for more restaurants to serve liquor with food. 

Elected officials and city staff have heard continued interest in the change, but there hasn’t the rush of applications some had predicted. Most of the inquiries have been in the city’s Second, Third and Fourth wards, where on-sale liquor licenses weren’t available under the per-ward caps. In Ward Three restaurants often had to wait years for a license to open up.

“The changes seems to have been used more by existing restaurants thus far, rather than people hoping to open new businesses,” said Ward Three Council Member Chris Tolbert. He led efforts to change the liquor regulations at the behest of Highland and Macalester-Groveland residents seeking more fine dining options in their neighborhoods.

The city hasn’t heard many objections to the regulatory change, nor has it heard of any problems resulting from the regulations, though there was some concern restaurants would try to get around the regulations and become bars rather than full-fledged dining establishments.

“That possibility is something we have to watch with every business with a liquor license,” Tolbert said. “There’s a lot of regulations that come with having a liquor license.” He added those regulations, including the costs of insurance, may have some businesses owners thinking twice before adding a liquor license. Liquor sales under a new license must typically end at midnight, perhaps another reason fewer applications have come through than anticipated.

Regulatory changes were made to ensure restaurants that obtained on-sale liquor licenses don’t operate as bars and that they do in fact make and sell food. The city also dropped its longtime requirement that 60 percent of sales come from food, 40 percent from alcohol. It was replaced by reference to a “substantial amount” of food sales versus alcohol

District councils, neighborhood business groups and the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce supported the change. Opposition was scattered, with the advocacy group St. Paul Strong raising concerns about the speed of the process, rather than the liquor issue itself.

Ward Seven Council Member Jane Prince was active in St. Paul Strong when it raised the process issues. Prince said she hasn’t heard concerns about the liquor change since taking office in January. “It’s something I’m tracking,” she said. “Obviously it could have unintended consequences. But I also know we have neighborhoods where liquor licenses are in demand.”

Instances where restaurants have made or are making the transition from wine and beer to full liquor have resulted in a few scattered complaints about potential patron noise and behavior. The former Scusi on St. Clair Avenue, which is reopening as Bottle Rocket, had its on-sale liquor license sent to a legislative hearing in June after neighbors raised concerns about spillover parking, noise and patron behavior. 

Blue Plate Restaurant Co. co-owner Stephanie Shimp met with city licensing officials and a neighbor to agree on conditions including when liquor service would stop inside and outside, and how noise would be handled. Time limits were also set on sidewalk café sales.

Other requests have had no opposition. When 128 Café sought its on-sale license over the summer, its nonconforming zoning status forced the additional step of seeking a change in nonconforming use for its Merriam Park property. It is in the basement of an apartment building and is zoned for residential use.

City staff and Union Park District Council braced for a repeat of the uproar they heard years ago when the restaurant added beer and wine sales. There was none.

128 Café is transitioning into the more casual Stewart’s following several weeks of renovation. Max Thompson, whose family owns and operates the restaurant, said neighbors know the establishment will be a responsible liquor license holder. “We do get a lot of requests for mixed drinks, and when we cannot serve them, customers go elsewhere.” 

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