Rochester taprooms, liquor store owners face off over off-sale rules

JIM GEHRZ
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Star Tribune For a single Thursday in Rochester, beer-lovers were able to grab a growler until 10 p.m. That’s a common transaction in many Minnesota cities these days — but not in Rochester, where off-sale beer and liquor sales have long ended at 8 p.m. on weekdays.

Then, suddenly, it was back to the old rule.

“It was only that one day,” said Brandon Schulz, owner of LTS Brewing Company, a new microbrewery. He sighed. “It was really nice not having to tell people they couldn’t buy a growler when they came in after 8 p.m.”

Earlier this month, the City Council amended an ordinance to allow growler sales until 10 p.m. — the latest cutoff allowed under state law — responding to requests from the city’s growing number of brewpubs and taprooms.

Assenting to liquor store owners’ concerns, the council left their closing time alone. But two days later, the city clerk pointed out that the compromise isn’t legal.

“State statute requires that the growler sale hours must match the off-sale hours of regular liquor stores,” Aaron Reeves wrote in a Sept. 11 letter to liquor license holders.

So at its meeting Monday, the council must weigh the trickier question of whether to extend off-sale hours for all, including liquor stores. Several owners of those stores oppose such a switch, saying that rules limiting access to liquor are appropriate and protect their employees from crimes that tend to occur at night.

“Things have been working for very many years,” said Ari Kolas, owner of Apollo Liquor, which has six locations in Rochester. “Why change it now? There’s no benefit to any of the liquor stores …”

Council President Randy Staver said that so far, the feedback he’s gotten through social media is “overwhelmingly in support of extending the hours” and is rooted in the idea of not restricting consumer rights. “I find that kind of an interesting argument,” Staver said. “I’m not asking this for me; it’s for the rights.”

He said he’s eager to see how many people feel strongly enough to show up at Monday’s meeting.

Big city, small town

When it comes to off-sale hours, Rochester is an outlier. It allows later hours on weekends — until 9 p.m. Friday and 10 p.m. Saturday — but its Monday through Friday limit is 8 p.m. Duluth, Winona, Mankato and many others match state statute, allowing liquor stores to stay open until 10 p.m. on weeknights. Rochester’s much smaller neighbors, including Byron, population 5,000, also have a 10 p.m. cutoff.

“There isn’t a city in the state that has a brewery that isn’t 10 p.m.,” Schulz said. The rules in Austin mirror Rochester’s, “but they don’t have a brewery, so they’ve never had to address this issue.”

His microbrewery, which opened its taproom in August, probably wouldn’t sell a ton of growlers — the large jugs used to sell takeout craft beer — between 8 and 10 p.m., Schulz admitted. Maybe one or two a night. And taprooms make a bigger margin on pints than on the jugs of beer. But the two hours matter, he said.

“It’s just upsetting to our customers,” Schulz said. “They’re here, they can see that we can fill a growler, but we aren’t allowed to.”

The rule is particularly confusing to out-of-towners, who after sampling several taps want to take home their favorite in a growler, said Donovan Seitz, lead brewmaster and owner of Kinney Creek Brewery, the first to set up shop in Rochester. With the city’s $6 billion Destination Medical Center in the works, the number of tourists wanting to taste Rochester’s burgeoning beer scene is bound to grow, he argued in a letter to council members.

“Rochester is growing its big-city exterior from the small-town mentality it started with,” Seitz wrote. “Shouldn’t we be giving our 100,000-plus residents and 2 million visitors per year big-city off-sale hours?”

The debate has raised the question of whether people are driving to nearby cities to get alcohol after 8 p.m., sending business elsewhere. Whether those customers are making those treks after they’ve already begun drinking “could be an interesting concern or nuance,” Staver said. “Does Rochester’s restrictive environment lend itself to perhaps some behavior we’d rather not see?”

A liquor store in Byron, 5 miles west of Rochester, does get some business from Rochester after 8 p.m., said its manager, who declined to give his name. He answers phone calls from people asking, “Are you still open? OK, we’re coming from Rochester.”

Complicated liquor laws

The tensions between liquor store and brewery owners in Rochester mirror those that have flared at the Capitol in recent years as breweries have fought for the ability to sell growlers. After a new state law allowed cities to decide whether to allow Sunday growler sales, Rochester was among the first to give the OK. On Sundays, growler sales extend to 10 p.m.

At the Legislature, craft breweries “manipulated the political system … under the guise of being small businesses,” said Kolas, the owner of Apollo Liquor, a family-owned company that’s 50 years old. “We’re all small business.”

While the compromise allowing growler sales until 10 p.m. “didn’t bother me that much,” Kolas said, he worries that a later cutoff for all would put his employees at risk. While some stores could choose to close at 8 p.m., others’ leases would require them to extend their hours to the city limit, he said.

“Every issue we’ve ever had, whether it’s shoplifting or thefts, is always later in the day,” he said. “The later things go, the worse it gets.”

Police chief Roger Peterson said that his department doesn’t expect to see a big change in incidents if off-sale hours are extended. Most alcohol-related issues are tied to bars, not liquor stores, he said. “From the policing side, we see a much clearer picture where we’re talking about on-sale liquor.”

Liquor stores want to be open fewer hours “basically without fear of competition,” said Council Member Michael Wojcik, who will fight at Monday’s meeting to push the cutoff to 10 p.m. “To say that it’s related to public safety or the values of our community is just ridiculous.

“We’re not forcing them to stay open,” he said. “If they want to close at 8, they can close at 8.”

Before moving to Rochester, Jeffrey Anderson lived in Wisconsin, where beer is sold at grocery stores and drive-thrus. “They don’t know what 3-2 beer is,” he said with a laugh. So it was strange to move to a city with such an early liquor off-sale cutoff.

Anderson, 57, stops by Kinney Creek regularly and has enjoyed watching the brewery grow from four taps to 14. He buys growlers a few times a month and supports the taprooms’ ability to sell until 10 p.m. “I think it’s good for business to be able to be open longer if you so desire.”