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Toby’s Two-Step: Restaurant Must Find Balance Between Food, Liquor Sales to Keep License

Toby Keith's I Love this Bar and Grill is struggling to meet a St. Louis Park requirement to sell at least as much food as liquor.

It’s a typical Friday night at in St. Louis Park, and the place is packed. Country musician Shane Wyatt is playing to an energetic crowd, many of whom are having mixed drinks or beer from Mason jars—a Toby Keith’s signature.

But for the eight-month-old establishment, the big crowds and busy bar has meant running afoul of a city ordinance and potentially putting its liquor license in jeopardy.

St. Louis Park requires all establishments selling liquor for on-site consumption to sell at least an equal amount of food, measured by gross receipts. Between the time the restaurant opened in June 2010 and the end of the year, Toby Keith’s was at 31 percent food and 67 percent liquor. On Feb. 22, the city renewed the establishment’s license, but on a probationary, six-month basis. In September, council will again check Toby Keith’s numbers. If the 50:50 ratio isn’t met, the city could impose a fine or possibly even revoke the bar and grill's liquor license.

While Toby Keith's general manager Kent Kramer said he personally doesn't agree with the St. Louis Park ordinance, he's confident his establishment will meet the criteria.

“I don’t think that a city should be able to tell a private business what they need to do,” he said. "(But) we've got to do it, and we understand that, and we’re going to do everything we can to do it.”

The ordinance, which has been in place since 2000, is similar to ordinances in nearby Hopkins, Minnetonka and Edina, the latter of which actually requires establishments earn at least 60 percent of their revenue from food. St. Louis Park Mayor Jeff Jacobs said the city has used the provision several times over the years to put other places on probation. In all instances, he said, the businesses came into compliance and kept their liquor licenses.

“I think generally it is (a good ordinance). It’s worked over the course of time," the mayor said. "We don’t want to have free-standing bars, and that makes sense.”

But Kramer said it’s hard to compare his establishment to others in town. Toby Keith’s regularly brings in well-known country acts on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, drawing crowds of around 800 per night—many of whom are looking to drink, not eat. At the same time, the general manager said, between Sunday and 6 p.m. on Friday, the establishment sells more food than liquor. Kramer added that he thinks many people have a misconception of Toby Keith's, labeling it just a bar.

“We sell a very large amount of food,” he said. “It’s a restaurant first. And that’s what we’ve been preaching since day one.”

Phil Weber, who owns the  in St. Louis Park, empathizes with Kramer and Toby Keith’s. The Park Tavern has bowling lanes and can bring in children’s birthday parties, helping the establishment meet its food-sales requirement. Weber says it's unfair to require the same 50 percent threshold for Toby Keith's, or any business.

“Truthfully, I think it’s an undue burden,” Weber said. “Toby Keith’s is a great place, but it is what it is. (They) can't change their platform.”

Maybe not, but other changes can—and will—be made. Starting on Monday, Toby Keith's will roll out new menus with entrees at slightly higher prices—a strategy to increase the overall revenue from food—and new happy hour appetizers that Kramer hopes will better appeal to the bar crowd. Also, the restaurant will soon distribute roughly 1,000 lunch cards granting free meals for every five entrees purchased. Kramer is also considering a revamped online marketing effort.

The specific penalty for Toby Keith’s if it doesn’t hit the 50:50 mark is unclear. The city could impose a fine of up to $2,000 or suspend the bar and grill's liquor license for up to 60 days. Revoking the license is also possible, though at this point seems less likely.

“I’d have a tough time with that,” Mayor Jacobs conceded. “I think we’d figure out some other way ... The city of St. Louis Park does not exist to put people out of business."

Kramer said he and staff will do "everything we can" to get Toby Keith’s into compliance.

“It’ll be close," Kramer said. "Will it be (exactly) 50:50? I don’t know. I’m not a soothsayer.”

Jeff Jacobs March 09, 2011 at 05:13 PM
Selling its public parks to raise revenue? Dude, which city are you talking about? SLP passed an ordinance several years ago protecting its public parks from ever being sold. Perhaps you should stop drinking so much and eat some catfish; it soaks up long chain carbohydrates and bad information. Bon appetit.
Lenny Small March 09, 2011 at 08:19 PM
Well, at least you acknowledge (tacitly) that it HAS been the practice of selling off pieces of parkland. Seems to me there's a nice, new eating disorder clinic where the tennis courts used to be. The point: we couldn't trust you then and we don't trust you now. Deal with it. Instead of using lightweight sarcasm, acknowledge your dismal history and make amends. Oh, by the way, I guess you'd know about catfish. They are, as I recall, bottom feeders.
Nancy Ritzman March 14, 2011 at 03:41 PM
Nice. Our mayor can't engage in a dialog with some views contrary to the City Council's decisions, but has to immediately resort to swarmy personal comments. What did the City Council think was going to happen at the West End to make it a destination for those outside of SLP? Toby Keith's is mainly a bar and will never be otherwise, no matter if they start making decent food, raising the prices or push food more. And what about Al's - did they survive the antiquated 50/50 rule as long as they did by selling a couple of frozen pizza's to the few who wanted to soak up some of the alcohol? I doubt it. I am tired of SLP's ill thought-out rules that serve no real purspose or are obsolete and result in arbitrary restrictions and further problems (garage height restrictions, wood pile heights, empty multi-unit housing influx, traffic chaos, solar wireless fiasco, etc). SLP is not a planned community social experiment like Jonathon - oh wait, that failed, didn't it?
Loran March 16, 2011 at 12:14 PM
FYI, Al's was SLP's last true "bar". They were grandfathered into the previous ordinance and did not need to meet food sales requirements. I'll note that the ordinance was in place before Toby Keith's opened. Business owners understand that the market in which they operate is not only economic but is also regulated. From HR issues to health/sanitation inspections to local ordinances regarding food/alcohol sales, there are burdens to carry beyond the immediate concerns of patrons. I think that Toby Keith's needs to continue to find a way to make their business work in SLP.
Carl Johnson April 19, 2011 at 12:22 PM
The law was in place wel before this place opened and they should have known that the type of "restaurant" they have has no chance of making it. They were basically telling the city from the beginnning that they didn't beleive anything would be done -- they thought they were above the city.

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