Heather Bray knows the pros and cons of her Minneapolis restaurant’s location all too well.
The good: The small, American-style eatery called The Lowbrow is tucked between local businesses in the heart of the city’s Kingfield neighborhood on Nicollet Avenue, giving it a down-to-earth feel featuring lots of comfort food and craft beer.
The bad: She can’t serve Manhattans, margaritas or other cocktails at customers’ request — thanks to century-old language in Minneapolis code that allows restaurants only in certain areas of the city to sell hard liquor. The Lowbrow, like about 70 others in neighborhoods across Minneapolis, is limited to offering wine and beer.
“It’s a really unhip situation,” Bray says. “Minneapolis is a hip town, and we have all these old-school, prohibition-style rules.”
That’s why she joined a group of Minneapolis restaurant owners pushing to lift the prohibition via a citywide ballot measure, a campaign called “Vote Yes on 1.”
The question for voters — “Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to remove from the City Charter the area and spacing requirements pertaining to liquor licenses?” — would (if approved) eliminate the boundaries that restrict liquor to restaurants within seven acres of commercially-zoned areas, also known as the “7-acre rule.”
Supporters say the amendment would make the city’s liquor-licensing system fairer. And opponents? That might be the strongest piece of evidence for just how antiquated the current language is: No group or public figure has come out against changing it.
A brief history of Minneapolis booze laws
It was about 140 years ago when state lawmakers made the first rules for where in Minneapolis people could sell — and not sell — liquor.
They deemed several blocks along the downtown riverfront, as well as Northeast and Cedar-Riverside, OK for bars, based on the rationale that police could easily get around those areas by foot. Those so-called “liquor patrol limits” eventually included hundreds of saloons, and the city’s influx of immigrants built a beer-drinking, booze-loving identity in those areas that prevails today.
Then came Prohibition. After Minneapolis bars officially closed in 1920, people joined high-profile, underground rings of alcohol sales; made their own moonshine; or patronized casual mom-and-pop speakeasies. When that era ended 13 years later, with the federal government’s decision to repeal the 18th amendment, officials re-enacted the same liquor patrol limits in Minneapolis from before.
“There was always this idea that neighborhoods would be dry and if you wanted liquor, you needed to go downtown,” said charter commissioner Matt Perry, who is also president of the Southwest Business Association and introduced the charter amendment.
But throughout the years, some homeowners in the city’s quieter, residential areas feared city leaders allowing bars everywhere in Minneapolis — and bringing with them loud partiers and crime. They resisted bigger geographical boundaries for the patrol limits and fought against looser restrictions to alcohol laws.
It wasn’t until 1959 that a voter-approved change to Minneapolis charter expanded the boundaries downtown, as well as along Franklin and Hennepin avenues. Then, in 1974, the public overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure to get rid of liquor patrol limits all together. But officials also began putting rules in their place. Among the new guidelines: The 7-acre rule.
“I’m not sure where these ideas came in. It didn’t make sense to me. Bar owners could have proposed it,” said Charter Commission Chair Barry Clegg. “Minneapolis is unique in that it has big chunks of charter that deal with liquor,” since many Minnesota cities deal with liquor laws through ordinances.
And yet, even now, some neighborhood restaurants, including at least one nearby Bray’s, can legally serve cocktails. That’s because owners with enough time and money can go to the state Legislature and request special liquor licenses. That work, which often requires hiring a lobbyist, can cost upwards of $20,000, according to the Vote Yes on 1 campaign.
“If you’re well-funded and have a friendly state Representative, you can propose your own legislation to get a liquor license,” said Clegg, describing how one state lawmaker introduced a bill to reform the process last session, but it died quickly. “It was basically warning Minneapolis to fix its legislation.”
In recent years, elected leaders at both the state and local level have ushered in a new era of looser alcohol laws. In 2011, Gov. Mark Dayton signed the “Surly Bill,” allowing breweries and taprooms to sell beer on site for the first time. Then, last year, the state lifted the century-old prohibition on Sunday alcohol sales. (Municipalities can decide for themselves if, or to what extent, they allow the change. Many towns are deciding with ballot measures this election.)
In Minneapolis, though, the 2018 campaign is a sequel to restaurant owners’ push in 2014 to change requirements for food-to-alcohol sales ratios. Before that initiative, restaurants had different requirements depending on their location, and voters overwhelmingly agreed to get rid of the rule.
Meanwhile, says The Lowbrow’s Bray, city officials have made it harder for restaurant owners to increase their bottom line by passing a higher, hourly minimum wage and new requirements around safe-and-sick time.
Now is a “challenging climate” for restaurants in Minneapolis, she said, though voters’ decision to amend charter this year could offset those new costs. Her menu right now has just a handful of mixed drinks with beer or wine as bases, as well as Bloody Marys made with saké. A longer list, she said, could give customers more options and raise the total of checks. “It makes a lot of sense.”
Minneapolis City Council members are already working on an ordinance to regulate the new liquor licenses in neighborhood eateries, pending the outcome of the Nov. 6 election. A committee passed the policy framework unanimously last week, and the full Council could consider the idea Friday.
“We believe in allowing liquor in the same environment in addition to beer and wine isn’t going to impact patrons or neighbors,” said Council Member Linea Palmisano. “Should this ballot measure pass, our small-business team intends to update procedures and give notices,” to restaurants about the new option quickly.
Because it involves liquor, state law requires a 55 percent majority for the measure to pass. If that happens, the new language would take effect Dec. 7, meaning all restaurants would shortly after have the option of applying for licenses to serve alcohol.
“The reality is, America has evolved; our dining and restaurant culture has evolved greatly,” said Charlie Broder, who owns two bars and an Italian restaurant in the city’s Fulton neighborhood. “This could provide an opportunity for everybody to play on the same playing field.”