St. Paul City Council to vote on loosening liquor license laws for restaurants

Bartender pouring drinks at Tongue In Cheek // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Bartender pouring drinks at Tongue In Cheek // Photo by Daniel Murphy

St. Paul restaurants, new and established, may soon have an easier time obtaining a full liquor license.

On Tuesday, November 10, the St. Paul Charter Commission passed an amendment to the City Charter that would allow more licensed restaurants an opportunity to obtain a full liquor license.

The catch? The city will have to redefine what it means to be a restaurant first.

Currently, state law limits the number of on-sale liquor licenses allowed in cities, but it does not count licenses issued to restaurants toward those limits. The City of St. Paul, however, doesn’t differentiate between restaurants and bars when it comes to issuing its 200 total on-sale liquor licenses, which means new restaurants—or those who have never been able to obtain a license due to scarcity—are competing against every new bar or saloon seeking approval.

Ward 4 and Ward 3, for instance, have just one permit currently available under St. Paul’s charter; Ward 2 has none. Citywide, only 13 of 200 licenses are available.

That’s a problem, says Ward 4 Councilman Russ Stark. “In today’s hyper-competitive marketplace, restaurants have a much better chance of being profitable with a full liquor license. […] Recent new restaurants with liquor licenses such as Ward 6 and Tongue in Cheek have helped revitalize neighborhood commercial districts and been positive additions to our community.”

Stark went on to say he is in favor of the proposed amendments because they “would remove the cap on liquor licenses per ward that are available for restaurants [while continuing] to exclude new bars and night clubs from opening. A good, sound definition of ‘restaurant’ is the key to striking a good balance on this proposal.”

Redefining what a restaurant is will require adding new criteria to St. Paul’s current definition. New rules would include only selling liquor to patrons who are “seated at an eating surface, unless the patron being served is on a bona fide waiting list for available seating,” “actively promoting food sales,” and allowing no more than 10 percent of the space to be dedicated to entertainment purposes.

Aside from the few criteria that are being tightened, the new definition would largely make it more accessible to be deemed a restaurant. The city’s minimum seating requirement for a restaurant of 50 people would be lowered to the state level of 30. Also, the stringent requirement that a restaurant derives at least 60% of its income from food and non-alcoholic beverage sales will be loosened to “a substantial amount of its income from the sale of foods and non-alcoholic beverages.”

The changes are actually nothing new in the broad scope of things—they would just be adjusting the St. Paul’s statutes to match those of the state of Minnesota (something Minneapolis has already done).

The proposed changes to the on-sale liquor laws and definition of restaurant were developed during months of discussions about St. Paul’s restaurant market conditions between the Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI), Saint Paul City Council members, District Councils, the City’s Business Review Council, business owners, and residents.

Ward 5 Councilwoman Amy Brendmoen echoed Stark’s comments, saying in an email that she supports the changes because they “modernize our antiquated system of liquor licensing most importantly by updating our definition of a restaurant. I think this will help attract the great food and beverage establishments we are seeking to draw all across Saint Paul without adding more ‘saloon-style’ establishments to our neighborhoods. I think it’s a smart, and arguably overdue revision.”

The remaining five council members did not immediately respond to a request for comment. DSI Director Ricardo Cervantes said in an email to the St. Paul Charter Commission members that “Mayor Coleman and all Council Members have expressed their support for the [proposed] language.”

The council members will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes on December 2. In order for the amendment to be approved, it must receive a vote of 7-0 and be approved by the mayor.

About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road seeking out good food, drink, and fodder for her next story.

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