Edina City Council grappling with food-liquor sales ratio

Edina City Council members made one point clear on whether to change the city’s liquor ordinance: They don’t want Edina to turn into a “bar town” similar to St. Louis Park’s West End or Minneapolis’ downtown area.

The council members are considering changing the city code that dictates restaurants must have a ratio of 60 percent of sales in food and 40 percent in liquor.

They are also considering changing the penalty for restaurants violating the ratio.

Council members want to compare the 2011 and 2012 annual reports that restaurants must submit to the city, especially to see how the advent of happy hour in Edina in 2012 has affected sales. The 2012 reports will be available in February and the council will resume discussions after that.

Councilmember Joni Bennett also suggested they review the penalties other cities impose if a restaurant violates the ratio and review how Minneapolis handles liquor sales in its code.

Council members spent an hour on Tuesday, Nov. 20, discussing the 60-40 ratio. The issue came about after Barrio’s had two violations, one of which was a violation of the 60-40 rule. Some council members felt the 60-40 violation shouldn’t have been counted as the first strike against the restaurant.

City Clerk Deb Mangen said most restaurants in the city are usually closer to a 70 percent food-30 percent liquor ratio.

For Councilmember Josh Sprague, changing the ratio to a lower percentage like 50-50 would better reflect what’s going on in the restaurants.

Business owners are saying consumers have changed and Edina is becoming a “mecca” for patrons having only appetizers and drinks at the restaurants, Sprague said. He pointed out that if an order includes a $10 martini and a $4 food item, “it jams them up on the percentage.”

Council members were leery, though, of changing the ratio so much that it begins to resemble a more bar-centric atmosphere, using the West End in St. Louis Park as an example throughout the work session.

St. Louis Park has a 50-50 ratio for food and liquor sales.

Mayor Jim Hovland said St. Louis Park has establishments that are always out of compliance on the ratio, but St. Louis Park doesn’t have the license revocation penalty for the violation like Edina does.

Hovland said establishments in St. Louis Park aren’t in compliance because they’re not paying attention to the ratio.

“They’re not paying attention because they want to be a bar and not a restaurant,” he said.

He added that he’s heard the West End is getting “wild and wooly.” Police Chief Jeff Long said he’s heard the same thing. Other communities haven’t seen a problem, but in St. Louis Park, they’ve had to increase their police staffing due to the West End, Long said.

Long said he has no problem with Edina becoming more lenient in its ratio as long as a ratio regulation remains in the code. But he said he fears if the city begins changing the percentage for how much seating a restaurant is required to have. Currently restaurants must be at least 15 percent seating.

“That keeps us where we want to be,” Long said. Sprague agreed, saying the seating percentage keeps Edina from becoming a “bar town.”

Councilmember Ann Swenson said she would be OK with the ratio dropping to between 51 and 55 percent food sales. She called it a “baby-step modification.”

“I don’t see how changing the ratio is going to create a West End,” she said.

Bennett also pointed out that St. Louis Park had to spend a lot of time and money cleaning up the Excelsior and Grand area, which was previously the city’s bar hub, including purchasing property to aid in the redevelopment. The businesses that were previously there were negatively impacting redevelopment opportunities and property values, she said. She added that although Edina isn’t to that point yet, it’s an example of why restaurants in Edina need to pay attention to the food-liquor sales ratio.

Hovland also cautioned that they want to protect the character of 50th and France, where people go out to eat and go to the movies, and it’s OK for families.

“That’s a culture you want to make sure you preserve,” he said.

Bennett concurred, adding that 50th and France is an area where parents can be comfortable going with children, as opposed to restaurants in nearby Uptown.

Sprague pointed out that part of 50th and France is located in Minneapolis and doesn’t have to follow the 60-40 rule, and yet, the Minneapolis side “keeps it civil.”

City Manager Scott Neal said Minneapolis has a complicated system and restrictions on liquor licenses that are based on the proximity to residential areas. Bennett suggested they also look at Minneapolis’ liquor codes because Edina has similar characteristics to some areas of Minneapolis, but they aren’t the same.

After City Attorney Roger Knutson said cities like Plymouth and Lakeville don’t have problems with violations, council members noted that the city’s location can affect how many problems it has. Hovland pointed out that St. Louis Park is more like downtown Minneapolis.

Bennett said residents in Minneapolis, Edina and St. Louis Park have the same expectations for going out to restaurants, but cities need to be care because “reputations could tumble, then businesses tumble.”

Swenson said Edina isn’t promoting an increase in alcohol sales, but is looking at how people’s eating habits are changing, including eating smaller meals.

Sprague concluded that the city’s 60-40 ratio for ratio is trying to force restaurants to do something that doesn’t align with what restaurant patrons are doing. When choosing where to open its doors, a restaurant wants to see flexibility in the city’s code.

“Why keep something on the books that will handicap a business from coming here?” Sprague asked.

Swenson also raised the issue of whether violating the ratio should count alongside other violations such as selling to an underage person, or if it shouldn’t count in the number of violations a restaurant has. The number of violations dictates how severe the penalty is.

When the issue came before the council due to Barrio’s violations, council members decided to lower the revocation of the restaurant’s liquor license from three days to one day because they believed the ratio violation wasn’t as intentional as others are.

Bennett, who was in the minority on the Barrio’s issue, questioned how the city would know if violating the 60-40 ratio was intentional.

Long added that when a business has a history of violations, there tends to be other issues going on in the background.