Swamped liquor inspectors admit they can’t head off problems

Three inspectors for 530 bars and restaurants -- more liquor licensees on the way

Jim Moncur, director of city licensing and consumer services, said his office has been swamped the last 18 months with new liquor license applications and more establishments to regulate.

Southwest Councilmember Dan Nizolek (10th Ward) is worried about neighborhood livability and rowdiness in the wake of four new licenses in the Uptown area. Since 2002, Uptown liquor licenses have risen from 20 to 24, with three new applications pending.

Niziolek (10th Ward), who also chairs the Council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, said liquor license applications have increased, but enforcement hasn't always kept up.

Moncur said three licensing inspectors are responsible for frequent business checks, complaint resolution, business license and annual renewal and new business investigation of the city's approximately 530 liquor licensees (including wine and beer licenses.) He said citywide, it's gotten to the point of too many establishments and too few personnel.

Licensing Inspector Ken Ziegler told Nizolek's committee in April that city staff responds to problems but can't do much head them off. "Unless red lights go on, we really don't have the ability," he said.

Regulation

After the Council approves a liquor license, city inspectors monitor licensed establishments to make sure they are following the rules.

The license office primarily responds to complaints and audits food and liquor sales.

A 1983 city ordinance is supposed ensure that bars that primarily serve alcohol are not located in neighborhoods.

An establishment must sell at least 60 percent food if it is located out of downtown, its entrance is less than 500 feet away from residential property and it's within seven continuous acres of commercial developments. A stricter 70-percent-food-sale standard applies to liquor licensees with an entrance less than 300 feet from a church.

If the city suspects an establishment is not in compliance, licensing staff holds a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) hearing with business owners to try to solve the problem.

Prompted by neighborhood complaints this year, Niziolek asked licensing staff to compare new licenses issued with an area's police calls.

The results did not link more licenses to more trouble. Police reported that calls for service and reports declined in 2003 and so far in 2004.

Still, Niziolek insists regulation is inadequate, citing examples such as Smiling Moose, a former Calhoun Square restaurant that closed last year. Nizolek said the 3001 Hennepin Ave. S. establishment never reached the 60 percent food-sales requirement -- but licensing staff never performed the required annual audit of the restaurant's receipts.

Earlier this month, the Licensing Department fined Tonic, 1420 W. Lake St., for $750 three violations, including failing to meet the food-sale requirement (see story below). The owners of the three-month-old business say they will appeal the fines.

Some restaurants and bars are exempt from the food-sale requirement if a previous liquor license was issued for their locations.

For example, Chino Latino, 2916 Hennepin Ave. S., was grandfathered in because the Rainbow Bar, which formerly occupied the space, had a liquor license from the early 1980s.

Other grandfathered properties in Southwest include the CC Club, 2600 Lyndale Ave. S.; Williams Pub and Peanut Bar, 2911 Hennepin Ave. S.; Uptown Bar and Cafe, 3018 Hennepin Ave. S.; and Liquor Lyle's, 2021 Hennepin Ave. S.

Licensing frenzy

Licensing officials say new licensees have been added gradually throughout the past few years, until spiking in the last 18 months. For example, in Uptown, Tonic's license was added this year and three more applications are pending -- Wild Noodles, 1221 W. Lake St.; Pagoda day spa, 2901 Hennepin Ave.; and Drink of Uptown, which is applying for a liquor license at the former Snyders Drug, 2939 Hennepin Ave. S.

"We're experiencing a boom in liquor licensing areas right now," Moncur said.

Meanwhile, he lost a half-time inspector "several years ago" and now polices the city with three inspectors and two administrative clerks despite a rise in the number of licensees.

Moncur said the workload has grown so much for his handful of employees that he's seeking additional staff -- but they were not included in the city's five-year business plan. "The five-year budget plan did not anticipate the spike in [liquor license] applications we're seeing," Jim Moncur, city licensing director, said.

Another factor adding to inspectors' workload is the 2003 statewide change from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. bar closing time. Licensing staff had to process all city applications for extended closing times.

Ziegler and Nizolek aide Gay Noble said a key reason the city has more licenses is that the Council relaxed parking requirements for such businesses a year and a half ago.

However, entrepreneurial competition also drives licenses demand. Ziegler said he's seen the greatest increase in new licensees for wine in sit-down restaurants and chains such as the new Wild Noodles.

In an April 21 City Council committee meeting Council President Paul Ostrow (1st Ward) said that these days, a beer and wine license is essential for many businesses. "An Italian restaurant that can't [serve] a glass of wine will have a hard time competing," he said.