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Election night’s biggest winner? Minneapolis’ neighborhood restaurants

A ballot question changing a city rule regulating food-to-alcohol sales ratios at neighborhood restaurants in Minneapolis was approved by more than 83 percent of voters. 

Restaurant owners Molly Broder, left, and Kim Bartmann celebrate at Terzo Vino Bar after hearing announcement from campaign staff that the Minneapolis question No. 2 was easily passing.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

A handful of Minneapolis restaurant owners were a little nervous Tuesday night as they waited for the results of a vote on a city charter amendment that would modernize the way alcohol sales are regulated in neighborhood restaurants. 

Sure, they stood to gain a lot by ending a confusing — and sometimes difficult to attain — stipulation in the current charter that 70 percent of sales in neighborhood restaurants come from food sales rather than alcohol. And a yes vote would also end a seemingly silly rule that customers couldn’t be served beer or wine until they had placed their dinner orders.

But there was a risk that an electoral loss wouldn’t just set back their cause by keeping the old rules in place for the 70 establishments governed by them, but also by making it unlikely that politicians would entertain other changes to the city’s regulation of restaurants anytime soon.

They needn’t have worried. When the first substantial vote counts came in, the “Vote Yes on 2, Mpls!” campaign was not only a winner, but a big winner. Needing 55 percent vote to pass, the measure was approved by more than 83 percent of voters. Another charter amendment to increase filing fees for city offices also passed, but with a lower yes total of 65 percent.

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“We all want to thank the voters for helping these neighborhood restaurants move into the 21st Century,” said Molly Broder, who owns Broders’ Pasta Bar and Terzo Vino Bar at W. 50th Street and Penn Avenue S. “We need this to become even more of a first class food town.”

But Broder admitted to being worried before the numbers finally came in. “I live in a bubble of food people,” she said. “Everyone I know is for it.”

The city charter change also ends another provision — that required food not only be purchased by every customer, but that food be ordered before beer and wine can be served.  

Neighborhood restaurants currently governed by the 70-30 rule have been credited with helping fuel the city’s restaurant boom. They include many iconic and popular restaurants such as Broders’ Pasta Bar, Anchor Fish and Chips, Alma, Corner Table, Tilia and The Kenwood.

In Minneapolis, there are three distinct zones for alcohol service. Full alcohol service has been allowed in the downtown areas, both in restaurants and nightclubs. In commercial areas outside the downtown, alcohol could be served in restaurants but could not make up a majority of a restaurant’s sales. (A sales ratio of 60 percent food and non-alcoholic beverages to 40 percent alcohol was enforced by the city.) 

Not until 1997 was a charter amendment passed that allowed beer and wine to be served in restaurants in city neighborhoods — defined as those outside downtown and not on commercial streets like Lake Street, Central Avenue, University Avenue or Hennepin Avenue. To make service rules more restrictive in the neighborhoods, the food-to-alcohol sales ratio was increased to 70-30, and no hard liquor was allowed.

Recent state law changes allowed cities to jettison the 60-40 ratio, which Minneapolis did over the summer. In its place is a new regulatory scheme that focused on negative activity associated with drinking rather than formulas. Restaurants must still make a substantial share of their revenue from food, however, and must have a full menu and serve food for most of the hours they are open. The city can ratchet up regulations and restrictions if a restaurant becomes a problem.

But because the 70-30 ratio for neighborhood restaurants is in the charter — and not just in ordinance — a vote of city residents was required to change the rule. And because the charter section involved alcohol, it had to get a 55 percent yes vote to pass.

The 70-30 ratio worked for most restaurants until recently, when diners’ tastes for more-expensive wine and craft beer made it difficult to sell enough food to compensate for the pricier drinks.

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Another one of the prominent “Yes on 2, Mpls!” backers, chef and Tilia co-owner Steven Brown, said he thinks there is still more to do to modernize the city’s regulation of restaurants.

“One mile from my restaurant you can go and have a totally different experience,” from at Tilia, Brown said, one that includes hard liquor as well as beer and wine. “Why have 70 restaurants in this special category? This resounding win shows that voters feel the same way.”