To keep Minneapolis savory, spike this dumb restaurant rule

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February 10, 2014 // UPDATED 9:39 am - February 18, 2014
By: David Brauer
David Brauer

When I moved to Kingfield from Uptown in 1994, I had to accept the neighborhood had no modern coffee shops. There was a place at 43rd & Nicollet called Midwest Espresso that, knife-twistingly, only sold espresso *machines.*

A couple years later, Anodyne had opened in the very same space — so exciting I helped paint their bathroom for free. A few months after that, I ran into Richard D’Amico. “Things are happening in my neighborhood,” I gushed. “You should open a restaurant there.”

He looked at me kindly, as if I were a young child. “We won’t open a restaurant east of Lyndale Avenue,” he explained.

Two decades later, we live in Restaurant World. Anodyne’s Nicollet neighbors include Corner Table, The Lowbrow, Sun Street Breads, C & G’s Smoking Barbecue, Blackbird, Pat’s Tap, Cocina Latina, Butter and the soon-to-open Kyatchi. None were around 10 years ago, and none are franchises.

Somehow, culinary entrepreneurs have enticed enough debt-strapped Millennials, kid-haggard GenXers and joint-aching Boomers to turn Minneapolis into a luscious and ever-more-desirable place.

Still, some of our most acclaimed neighborhood restaurateurs also see a threat — enshrined in the city charter.

The “70/30 rule” requires certain neighborhood restaurants earn no more than 30 percent of revenues from alcohol (beer and wine) sales. The purpose is simple: make sure that nice new restaurant doesn’t become a neighborhood-tormenting bar.

Ironically, Minneapolis’s newer home-grown food revolution — craft beer — has tightened the 70/30 screws. Says Grant Wilson, the city’s licenses and consumer-services manager, “With the coming of age of the new microbrews, a $6–$7 glass of beer doesn’t add up with a $7 burger.”

Operators wince even more if you want a nice red to go with that Angus. Notes, Molly Broder, who owns Broders’ Pasta Bar, Cucina and Terzo Vino Bar, “If someone comes into Terzo and orders a $100 bottle of wine, I’m supposed to sell them $250 worth of food? How many people do I have to hope don’t drink?”

In many Southwest eateries, alcohol price has simply become a poor predictor of alcohol consumption, Broder asserts: “People aren’t drinking more, they’re just ordering better.”

So Broder — along with Tilia’s Steven Brown, Turtle Bread’s Harvey McLain, George & the Dragon's Frederico Navarro and Lynn on Bryant’s Peter Ireland — has started a petition drive to strike the 70/30 rule from the charter. It won’t be easy; they’ll need 10,790 signatures to get on the 2014 ballot, and a voter supermajority (55 percent) because of state booze-initiative rules. (Note: This sentence has been revised to correct which restaurant Frederico Navarro is affiliated with.) 

Why are these rules in the charter at all? It’s a little like putting a 15 percent tipping requirement in the Constitution.

The 70/30 standard once represented a liberation. In 1983, the city finally allowed booze at restaurants outside the Downtown-area “liquor patrol limits.” However, only eateries in commercial nodes 7 acres or larger were eligible, with a 40-percent booze-revenue cap.

The neighborhood-restaurant revolution we love today was really ignited in 1997, when voters allowed alcohol outside commercial nodes — with a tighter 30-percent cap. Wilson says putting the rules in charter was a way to ensure restaurants closer to homes didn’t “turn into saloons."

Today, Broder argues 70/30 provides a false sense of security. “Some people squeak by because they serve breakfast and lunch — does that mean people are drinking any less at night?” she quips.

She acknowledges Terzo is running about 50/50; the city says none of the 70 Minneapolis 70/30 joints has had a license revoked in the past two years for not meeting the standard. Wilson says enforcement protocol has “lightened” as the city staff tries to collaborate with restaurateurs on more modern regulation.

Professional staff now supports moving any rules to ordinance, where the Council can more easily tailor them. Alternative regulation might include a city-approved minimal food menu available at all hours, combined with noise and other standards that would punish “unruly activity.”

Will such changes gain confidence in parts of town — including Southwest — that are more Grain Belt than Surly Darkness?

For now, Mayor Betsy Hodges is taking a wait-and-see position. Third Ward Council Member Jacob Frey, vice chair of the committee dealing with regulatory services, supports striking the 70 percent requirement from charter. Committee chair Lisa Goodman was out of town and not available for comment. Ward 8 Council Member Elizabeth Glidden and Ward 13 Council Member Linea Palmisano meet with the restaurateurs next week.

Glidden is hopeful, but cautions, “It’s totally unclear if there’s enough political support for these changes. There are bad actors out there, but we need the right tools to help the good operators.”

The 70/30 rule is clearly broken. If you want to stop neighborhood joints from becoming drunk tanks, focus on their drunk production, not faith-based “ate-a-pizza-so-now-I’m-sober” arbitrariness. While I’m a bit worried about losing some breakfast and lunch options, restaurateurs have done so much for Minneapolis’s livability that we shouldn’t burden them with needlessly unprofitable and outdated operating hurdles.

David Brauer, a former Journal editor, lives in Kingfield with his wife and two kids. Molly Broder is a sponsor of the Kingfield/Fulton Farmers Markets, an organization David once chaired, but she did not suggest this story. 

FYI ... 
To see a list of 70/30 restaurants, click here