The cocktails are coming

Some restaurants seek upgraded liquor license after amendment's passage

Nighthawks bartender Justin Flower prepares a cocktail for a customer on Jan. 7. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

For Jason Hines, general manager at Blackbird Café at 38th & Nicollet, a full liquor license couldn’t come soon enough.

“As soon as the city can get us the license, we’re ready to go,” he said.

For Charlie Broder, co-owner of Terzo wine bar at 50th & Penn, the process will take more time.

“We have a lot of planning to accomplish so that when we do release (a liquor program), it’s in the right vision,” he said.

Two months after Minneapolis voters approved a referendum that makes it easier for restaurants to obtain full liquor licenses, and serve cocktails if they so choose, about half a dozen proprietors have applied for the upgrade. Meanwhile, others are taking a more gradual approach or are weighing whether they want the license at all.

“I don’t imagine that business licensing will be overwhelmed with requests,” said Matt Perry, president of the Southwest Business Association. “I think there will be a lot more normally than what would have happened, but I don’t think there’ll be a huge or overwhelming amount.”

Over 440 businesses holding a wine and beer license became eligible for the full liquor license after voters passed the referendum, according to Linda Roberts, interim manager of business licensing for the city. The seven that had applied as of Jan. 7 include Blackbird, Seed Cafe in Calhoun Village, Pizzeria Lola at 56th & Xerxes and La Mesa in Bryn Mawr. The City Council Economic Development & Regulatory Services Committee unanimously advanced Pizzeria Lola’s application to the full council on Jan. 8.

Pizzeria Lola co-owner Conrad Leifur said during the committee meeting that the restaurant is planning a minor expansion of its beverage program, adding that he envisions three cocktails on tap. Otherwise, nothing much else will change at the restaurant, Roberts told the committee members.

At Blackbird, Hines said owner Todd Zallaps is working on menu of about 10 specialty cocktails while he works on the logistics of setting up the new bar. Hines said customers they’ve talked to are excited about the cocktail program, adding that the new drinks will fit with the rest of the menu.

“This new license should bring a better experience,” he said.

‘Right thing to do’

Until November, Minneapolis’ city charter prohibited restaurants outside of commercial zones less than 7 acres in size from obtaining the licenses they needed to serve spirits and cocktails. Neighborhood restaurants could obtain an exemption to the charter from the state Legislature if they wanted to serve cocktails. But that meant a lengthy process that could cost more than $10,000.

Broder, whose family owns Terzo, Broders’ Pasta Bar and Broders’ Cucina Italiana, said Minneapolis’ law regarding spirits always seemed archaic to him. With Linden Hills restauranteur Steven Brown and his mom, Molly Broder, he helped lead the campaign this past fall to pass the charter amendment that repealed the “7 acre rule,” as it was known.

“The reality of why we wanted to do that is to make it an even playing field for everybody,” Broder said. “… It just seemed like the right thing to do is to help the city evolve in terms of its approach to alcohol.”

Broder said cocktails are a great way for restaurants to boost their bottom lines in a time when other costs are rising. He also said his support of the amendment was in part to help bolster the dining culture in Minneapolis.

“There’s a lot of really smart, elegant, flavor-driven products out there that we would like to focus on,” he said.

Restaurateurs who apply for the upgraded license need to pay a $500 investigation fee plus the difference between their current and upgraded licenses. The process includes a public hearing, either in the community or at a City Council committee meeting, before the council votes on the license.

An email from the city’s department of Business Licenses & Consumer Services said the expected turnaround to process a complete application is 40 business days.

Each one of the upgrades will include an opportunity for public engagement said Roberts, the interim business-licensing manager. If issues or neighborhood concerns arise at a restaurant, the city has tools for dealing with them, Ward 13 City Council Member Linea Palmisano said.

Terzo co-owner Charlie Broder said the upgraded liquor license would help the wine bar compete with nearby restaurants that serve cocktails, such as Tinto Kitchen and Martina. Photo by Nate Gotlieb
Terzo co-owner Charlie Broder said the upgraded liquor license would help the wine bar compete with nearby restaurants that serve cocktails, such as Tinto Kitchen and Martina. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Keeping up with competition

For Broder, he said the interest in pursuing an upgraded license at Terzo is to stay on the same playing field as the local competition.

He noted several nearby restaurants, such as Tinto Kitchen and Colita, have cocktail programs. Terzo plans to offer a cocktail program based around the Italian liqueur amaro. He said he expects to apply for the upgraded license in the first half of 2019.

“We want our cocktail program to be unique and specific to Terzo,” Broder said. He said his family won’t pursue an upgraded liquor license at the pasta bar.

Brown, who owns St. Genevieve and Tilia, agreed that allowing the upgraded liquor licenses citywide will help even the playing field for restaurants.

Brown said on Jan. 8 he was preparing to submit applications for upgraded licenses for both restaurants. He said the plan is for St. Genevieve to have French-inspired cocktails and for Tilia to focus on bourbon, including products from small-batch artisan makers.

“I think it’s a great angle for us to play that we’re a small place and we support small-batch producers just like us,” he said, adding that both restaurants will serve other liquor products too.

Other neighborhood restaurants, both in and outside of Southwest Minneapolis, are planning to apply for the upgraded license, though not necessarily in the coming weeks. Niki Stavrou, owner of Victor’s 1959 Café at 38th & Grand, said she plans on applying eventually but won’t rush. She said she hopes to start a small craft cocktail program at the restaurant sometime in 2019.

Heather Bray, owner of The Lowbrow near 43rd & Nicollet, also plans on applying for the license. She noted the large amount of work it would take to get her restaurant ready for serving cocktails, a process that includes retrofitting the bar at the restaurant.

Amy Greeley, owner of Bull’s Horn Food and Drink east of Lake Hiawatha, said she expects to start the application process this spring. She said factors contributing to the decision to pursue the upgraded license include customer interest and that she expects other businesses to start doing it.

Bull’s Horn will keep its cocktail program simple, Greeley said, adding that she wants to maintain the restaurant’s feel as a family friendly place.

Those in the spirits business also appear excited for the change.

Gina Holman, founding partner of J. Carver Distillery in Waconia, was a member of the steering committee that helped advocate for the charter amendment. She said consumers want to see local products on both food and drink menus, noting that many local mixologists are passionate about using locally distilled spirits.

“What we’re excited about is that these restaurants now have the option to use these locally distilled spirits,” she said.

‘A positive thing’

Serving cocktails has already benefitted Nighthawks Diner + Bar at 38th & Nicollet, according to Managing Partner Max Thompson. The restaurant received an exemption from the city charter during last year’s state legislative session.

Thompson said the new offerings have helped increase bar sales and have contributed to the restaurant’s being able to offer a “nice” happy hour and a neighborhood night. All of Nighthawks’ cocktails are $9 or less, he said, noting that the restaurant keeps its cocktails in kegs in the basement.

“They literally pour out just like a beer would from a tap system,” Thompson said.

Thompson said he’s glad the voters approved the change to the city charter that allows for more restaurants to obtain full liquor licenses. It’s a sentiment that many in the community appear to share.

“People still need to drink responsibly, and I think servers need to serve responsibly, but I think (the amendment) is going to help the economic conditions for a lot of small businesses in the community,” City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins said. “And overall, I feel like it’s a positive thing.”