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Mankato City Council considering bar restrictions to reduce binge drinking

Oct. 8 hearing

City Council proposals to reduce binge drinking in Mankato include a ban on late-night all-you-can-drink specials, fishbowl specials and other restrictions on bars.

By Dan Linehan, Free Press Staff Writer [published in The Free Press, Mankato, MN, 9/26/2007]

You might expect Tom Doerr to oppose regulations that limit the drink specials he can offer his customers.

As co-owner of Chopper’s, a downtown bar, Doerr has some experience with regulation — and don’t even bring up the smoking ban.

But when it comes to all-you-can-drink specials, he’s got something in common with police who blame rising blood-alcohol content on such deals.

“It’s not like it’s profitable,” he said, “but we do it because the only way you’re going to get people in on your slow nights is to show ’em a good time.”

That way, Doerr said, they might come back to Chopper’s even without the specials.

Banning all-you-can-drink specials after 9 p.m. is one of the recommendations of an eight-month police study to cut down on binge drinking and the resulting nuisance complaints. A proposed ordinance is slated for an Oct. 8 public hearing before the City Council.

That’s not new.

But police have learned a new phrase: “Puke n’ rally,” referring to the practice of drinking until you vomit, then, instead of calling it a night, drinking some more.

Laws that prevent bars from selling alcohol to drunk people are difficult to enforce, starting with the difficulty of discerning at a glance how drunk someone is.

Perhaps the most obvious culprit in binge drinking are specials that allow customers unlimited drinks for a set price, sometimes $5. The pricing and the short duration of the offer create an incentive for heavy drinking.

Several years ago, St. Cloud banned specials that involve selling multiple drinks for a single price after 9 p.m., St. Cloud Police Sgt. Laurie Ellering said.

And while some here have raised enforcement questions, Ellering has spent lots of time at the night desk and can’t remember a time when police were called to enforce the law.

She says the law has been around for so long she can’t remember what effect, if any, it had. What is clear, however, is that binge drinking remains a problem in St. Cloud.

Fighting binge drinking is more complicated than putting an end to drink specials.

Sandi Schnorenberg, associate deputy director and lead on the liquor study, said meetings with bar owners have raised some questions. Will bar-goers, being denied cheap liquor, decide to drink at home and at parties?

After all, the downtown only begins to get busy around 9 p.m.

Also up for debate are the types of specials to be banned.

Two-for-one, half-price and happy hour offers have “never been an issue and those are the things we’re not worried about,” Schnorenberg said.

A “fishbowl” special offered at one bar where customers receive a bowl containing about a dozen shots of hard liquor is an example of a more suspect offer.

Under the new rules, the bar would have to charge for the fishbowl however much it charged for the shots if they were bought individually.

As Doerr says, these offers don’t make bars rich.

He argues the city should never have allowed so many bars to cram into a few blocks, forcing them to “cut each other’s throats to survive” by offering these specials.

Some liquor license holders argue the ordinance paints with too broad a brush, that it doesn’t recognize fundamental differences among hospitality businesses.

Joe Frederick, owner of two Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants and a former member of the City Council, said he spent six hours reading through the proposed rules and came up with 28 talking points.

Many of them concerned rules meant for bars that would also apply to restaurants that carry liquor licenses, like his.

For example, those under age 21 would only be allowed to sit in special alcohol-free areas after 10 p.m.

What if, Frederick asks, a family wants to eat out after a child’s sporting game, and an adult wants to order alcohol? He or she would have to sit away from the family, an inconvenience that has nothing to do with the problem police are trying to solve.

He also questions the effect of banning drink specials past 9 p.m.

“For me, and for most people, you run specials to get people in when you’re not busy,” he said.

For downtown, that usually means in early evenings, not later in the night. Frederick suggests rules like these be delineated in individual liquor license agreements.

“I’m hoping that on the 8th that (the council) will have enough input by then that they will listen and table the motion until they have a chance to discuss all the points that we brought up,” Frederick said of the Oct. 8 public hearing.

Ruth Dutler, owner of Dutler Bowl, says that while her establishment would be affected by the new rules, it doesn’t contribute to the problem.

“Our establishment isn’t geared toward ‘drink until you puke,’” she said, to borrow a phrase used by police to describe the problem. But she concedes that Mankato as a whole has created that atmosphere.

Dutler said her specials never involve only alcohol, but transfer to food, soda and bowling.

Schnorenberg agrees bars and restaurants “really are separate entities,” and changes were recently incorporated into the new ordinance with that in mind.

Another facet of the ordinance mandates yearly staff training, conducted by an approved company.

“Server training keeps us on our toes,” said Doerr, Chopper’s co-owner. “It teaches employees what to look for, what the actual laws are.”

All three bar owners said they do server training but not as often as once per year.

St. Cloud mandates annual training, and Mankato’s ordinance borrows from that city in this category, too.

There’s also an incentive to stay current on training.

The city is offering a “gold star” program that allows participating businesses to pay about 10 percent less in license fees. It also gives them lesser penalties if violations are found because it shows they are making an effort.

The city’s study also found that restaurants that rely on food sales tend to have far fewer police calls than bars.

So the new liquor license fee structure rewards establishments that sell more food.

The difference between a restaurant and a large club is as high as $5,000 per year.

Another controversial aspect of the re-write was a new rule requiring all new bars and transfers to earn a quarter of their income from food.

Doerr says this could make bars less valuable if they were sold because the new owner would face heavy costs installing a kitchen.

But a recent change means bars that are sold — but do not move or expand — can continue without food.

Schnorenberg, the police administrator, said the revamp is not a way to generate substantial income for the city.

“In no way will we recoup costs of foot patrols,” she said.

Restaurants deriving three-quarters of their income from food will actually pay about $400 less per year, and the new fee structure will net the city about 10 percent more in license fees, City Manager Pat Hentges said.

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