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Neighborhood restaurants finally won the right to sell hard alcohol. So why aren’t they?

Lowbrow owner Heather Bray

Lowbrow owner Heather Bray whitney walter

It was like Rock the Vote, but for alcohol. On the Rocks the Vote, if you will.

In the weeks leading up to November’s midterm elections, dozens of Minneapolis restaurants—from Tiny Diner to Kyatchi to Broders’ Pasta Bar—suddenly started encouraging people to get to the polls.

Food and drink heavyweights like Revival’s Nick Rancone and Thomas Boemer, Jamie Malone at Grand Café, and Kim Bartmann were tweeting, Facebook-ing, even filming videos begging people to cast their vote. Where once there were photos of brunch, now there were polling place finders.

Many of these restaurants were members of Citizens for a Modern Minneapolis, a group that wanted residents to vote yes on ballot question No. 1. If passed, the measure would remove a section of the city charter giving the state Legislature (and not the city) control over liquor license applications for restaurants in large chunks of Minneapolis (those located outside a seven-acre area around commercially zoned businesses). Essentially, the amendment would make it way easier for neighborhood restaurants to serve hard liquor instead of being limited to beer and wine.

The measure went through with ease; a whopping 72 percent of thirsty Minneapolitans sided with restaurant owners. And those voters were more than ready to toast to their victory.

“We had so many people, the week after the election, coming in and being like, ‘All right, where are my cocktails?’” says Lowbrow owner Heather Bray.

“We’ve had some people like that too,” adds Sam Peterson, owner of Kyatchi. “Walking in: ‘Hey, you all serve hard liquor now?’”

The bad news for folks looking to wash down their Yakisoba Dog with a Japanese whiskey drink is that two months after the measure passed, Peterson still has to tell them no. For his restaurant, and the Lowbrow, and the 70-ish others that were bound to a less-boozy existence by the seven-acre rule, that’ll be the answer for a few more weeks at least.

It’s not that owners are dragging their feet. “I have been working on this since the day after the vote,” Red Wagon Pizza chef-owner Peter Campbell says.

The issue is that the yes vote didn’t flip a switch giving everyone in town the right to serve stronger stuff. Ward 13 Councilwoman Linea Palmisano explains that first there was the matter of removing the necessary language from the charter. It wasn’t until the new version went into effect on December 7 that restaurants were able to submit applications.

According to Steven Brown, owner of Tilia and St. Genevieve, the city has been relaxed and helpful about the whole thing. They hosted open meetings, took questions and comments from restaurants into account. The policy work on the ordinance happened in collaboration with restaurants and took place before the election, in part to make sure there was no gap between the two versions, and “in part to give confidence to voters that this would be handled differently than beer and wine, that there will still be all the checks and balances in place to make sure that our restaurants are good neighbors,” Palmisano says.

Perhaps as a result, applications started rolling in almost as soon as the new language went into effect.

“We’re talking Prohibition-era ordinances that are still impacting these businesses,” the councilwoman chuckles. “I understand why they’re excited.”

For some, though, it’s not a simple matter of getting your paperwork in; at the Lowbrow, Bray says that’s the least of their worries. While she’s anxious to start serving, she hasn’t yet submitted an application on account of updates the restaurant needs first: “We have to make a bar that was never made to accommodate a cocktail menu into a bar that can accommodate a cocktail menu. I would say that the biggest hurdle to us getting to the point where we’re offering our cocktail menu is retrofitting our bar.”

For spots where it’s been beer, wine, and cider only, there are new practical and logistical matters to consider. Where do all these bottles go? What about the work stations? How do you create a space that’s welcoming and functional?

Then, of course, you have to actually go about creating a drink list. Which might be simple if you’re sticking to the classic “and” drinks: whiskey and cokes, gin and tonics, seven and sevens—but quickly gets complicated if you plan to have a more involved cocktail program. What will your drinks say about you? In Brown’s words: “Are you going to be like the Monte Carlo, where you’ve got a wall of whiskey and 400 drinks, or be like Marvel Bar? Or are you going to be something in between?”

Oh, and those folks behind the stick who have been handling the taps thus far? They’ll need a whole new skill set now, too. Bray and Brown say that they feel lucky, because most of their bar staff already has experience in mixed drinks, but there are plenty of places where that isn’t going to be the case. That means hiring new folks to tend bar or, more likely, taking time to train existing employees—no one wants to displace their longtime drink-slingers. “I think a lot of people are going to have a tough hill to climb in terms of getting their bartenders up to speed,” Bray says.

And after that, there are a few final obstacles to clear: insurance requirements, alcohol awareness training.

By the time you’ve paid the fees associated with the application, re-trained bartenders or hired new ones, attended to the seemingly simple matter of buying a bunch of booze in bulk... well, it’s certainly not the $10,000 to $20,000, year-and-a-half-long process Citizens for a Modern Minneapolis says it was to lobby the state Legislature, but it’s not nothing, either.

“It’s a commitment in terms of capital, and for a lot of mom-and-pop places... that’s a considerable question,” Brown notes. “Can we spend that much money at one time?” It’s why he says you shouldn’t expect everyone will go for it—especially not right away.

Still, it’s an investment many are willing to make, and for those who hashtagged, filmed videos, or posted a polite ask on Instagram, the process is underway. Palmisano says a number of applications will be heard during the first week of the legislative session this month. Brown’s already submitted Tilia’s; he plans to put St. Genevieve’s through soon. Peterson says he’ll apply within the first few weeks of January. And since Kyatchi’s St. Paul location already has a full cocktail program, one they plan to mirror in south Minneapolis, the turnaround should be quick.

Fairly quick, at least. Peterson was told he shouldn’t expect to serve hard alcohol until about March, as the approval window can be roughly 60 days. (Palmisano says it’s probably not so dire, estimating that the first wave of newly minted cocktail restaurants will arrive by the end of January.)

Even over at the Lowbrow, where the process requires a little more finagling, an optimistic Bray hopes she’ll finally start sliding mixed drinks across the bar by spring.

“I am so tired of getting that stare from people at brunch when they ask for a Bloody Mary, and I have to explain that a sake Bloody is just as good, too,” she laughs. “I really can’t wait to pour vodka into those Bloody Marys.”